Book Reviews
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1998). - Secrecy: The American Experience.
(Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 2000.)
18 tra 2000 06:36:00

Introduction by Richard Gid Powers.
New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
62 pages, Bibliography, Index. $22.50
ISBN: 0-300-07756-4.


Secrecy is for losers. For people who do not
know how important the information really is.
- Daniel P. Moynihan


In his book Secrecy, US Senator D.P. Moynihan sharply criticises the American government's secrecy. Drawing on the history of this institution's development, Moynihan attacks its legal framework and its function within the American political system, viewing it as one of the key characteristics of the governing methods of the executive. His work is a plea for abandoning the current situation, which he calls the "Culture of Secrecy", and for the establishment and acceptance of the alternative, "Culture of Openness".

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However, Moynihan does not entirely discard the need for a certain degree of secrecy in a state's affairs and claims his intention is not to abolish secrecy, which is indeed "sometimes legitimate and necessary". Why then does Moynihan so forcefully attack and destructively criticize the institution of secrecy?

First, Moynihan does not attack the concept of secrecy as such, which would be in the least impractical. However, he does attack secrecy in its bureaucratised form and manifestations as the institution of a modern democratic state. Second, his harsh criticism, which arises in part from his general view on freedom and democracy as well as from the dubiousness of the relationship between secrecy and freedom, has one concrete practical dimension; namely, the expensive American bureaucratised secrecy system and the intelligence-security Leviathan which rests on it have not, according to Moynihan, fulfilled their only purpose in the second half of the twentieth century: correctly assessing the degree of threat to American national security from its main Cold War enemy, the USSR. Continual intelligence overestimates of Soviet strength and then being caught unprepared by its dissolution are the cardinal sins which lie in the most distorted aspect of the "Culture of Secrecy"; in other words, the withholding of information for reasons of scientific pretensions; that is to say, closed intelligence analyses and assessments which did not allow for expert dialogue and criticism. Moynihan, who is not only a politician but also a social scientist, shows us how contradictory secrecy is to the essence of scientific discourse.

Moynihan's likeable style of describing various episodes from America's most recent history helps to illustrate his basic arguments. The making of the modern American secrecy system during WW I; the extent of Soviet espionage before, during and after WW II; ominous complementarity of the concepts of secrecy, conspiracy and loyalty, and the expansion of the secrecy system with the onset of the nuclear age; the Pentagon Papers; the Iran-Contra affair are just a few of the elaborated themes. One of the most fascinating and, from the perspective of the American reception of Moynihan's work, the most controversial parts of the book, is the author's presentation of the current decline in the quality of strategic analysis regarding the Soviet threat to American national security. Moynihan believes that George F. Kennan's article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", which was published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, is the best insight of its kind or, rather, "the most prescient position paper in the history of modern American diplomacy." Moynihan also covers various classified assessments inaccessible to expert criticism and discussions, assessments which have for decades served as a basis for political decision-making, and which vastly exaggerated the power of the USSR, until the final debacle: being caught unprepared by the breakdown of the Soviet empire.

Moynihan simultaneously follows two processes, illustrating them with numerous examples - on the one hand the process of establishing and developing an American secrecy system, and on the other hand, the parallel battle of the public and the parliament to restrain this institution; that is, to define the level of regulation which would serve to effectively resist an enemy, but which at the same time would not be used against one's own citizens and their liberties, whether it be in the form of bureaucratic inertia or political misuse.

In places where Moynihan the social scientist argues for demolishing the "Culture of Secrecy" and developing a "Culture of Openness", Moynihan the politician demands the establishment of a new, more stable model of decision-making in the area of national security. The old model, grounded on secrecy, with its legacy of intelligence failures and ill-conceived political moves, must yield to a new way of addressing the national security issue; that is, shifting the emphasis from secrecy to analysis. Because he has confidence in the beneficial effects of the "Information Age" in which we live, the civilizational foundation of a "Culture of Openness", Moynihan is thus confident in the intelligence value of open sources.

He is of course practical and hence does not rely solely on invisible historical powers, but on the legislative activity of a democratic state as well: the manner in which one must restrain a "Culture of Secrecy" and allow for the development of a "Culture of Openness" is a law that would clearly define and limit the area of secrecy.

To be sure, we must allow for the possibility that there exist authors, mostly American, who would successfully oppose some of Moynihan's arguments and show, on the basis of thorough analysis of intelligence assessments, that their history is not entirely comprised of dramatic failures.

However, a critical approach to Moynihan's work, as well as to his lack of modesty (he presents his former scepticism in regard to the long-term survival of communist totalitarianism as one of the rare bright spots in the darkness of delusions about Soviet strength and invincibility) do not lessen the value of Moynihan's other arguments, his support for a "Culture of Openness" and his strong, morally and intellectually principled stands in the defence of democracy and civil liberties.

Moynihan's text is preceded by an excellent introduction by Richard Gid Powers, in which he sketches Moynihan's political portrait and interprets the meaning of his efforts in light of critical consideration of the Cold War's tangle of facts and illusions wrapped in a veil of secrecy, and the epochal clash of the two superpowers over the shortage of valid information-based hysterias - the right wing ideology of anti-communism and the left ideology of anti-anti-communism, as one of the main characteristics of modern American history.

However, even though he looks at secrecy from the perspective of an "American experience", Moynihan's work is of exceptional value for the non-American readers too, especially those in the Central Eastern European "transitional laboratory". Namely, while the American reader finds this book predominantly, although not solely, polemical and politically provocative, for this other group of potential readers the book is first of all didactic, since this is the area where there are deep structural changes being undertaken in all aspects of social life, and thus the reconsideration of the concept of national security and the reorganising of systems and mechanisms for its protection are underway. For all that, in areas where a fundamental breakdown of the old totalitarian system and a rejection of its methods in the area of national security are occurring (that is, in the best case scenario), some of the already existing models from the West are being accepted as an alternative, and the very fact that they are western models necessarily assumes the democratic legitimation of these models and methods. Moynihan's work implicitly reminds us of the important historical lesson that when "human affairs" are in question, there are no ready-made and self-explanatory solutions; that when it is once achieved, democracy is not a self-maintaining "natural state" but rather needs continual nurturing, and, finally that any measure of freedom, regardless of the form it might take, should always be fought for. Therefore Moynihan's concern for American democracy is a concern for democracy in general.


Stribor Kikerec, Zagreb, Croatia

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