This piece originally appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. government commands few capabilities more potent than its power to declare information secret. Even when the judiciary and Congress exercise their checks-and-balances powers over the executive branch, the American secrecy machine still finds a way to shunt aside substantive discussions about a host of programs and policies.
With little or no public input, the U.S. government has kidnapped suspected terrorists, established secret prisons, performed “enhanced” interrogations, tortured prisoners, and carried out targeted killings. After the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pilfered hundreds of thousands of documents from the NSA’s computers and released them to journalists last summer, the public learned of additional and potentially dodgy secret government programs: warrantless wiretaps, the weakening of public encryption software, the collection and warehousing of metadata from phones and e-mail accounts, and the interception of raw Internet communications.
The secrecy machine was originally designed to keep the United States’ foes at bay. But in the process, it has transformed itself into an invisible state within a state. Forever discovering new frontiers to patrol, as the Snowden files indicate, the machine molts its skin each season to grow ever larger and more powerful, encountering little resistance from the courts or Congress.
In his new book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy (Princeton University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $35), the Princeton political scientist Rahul Sagar ably documents this growth in secrecy and the problems it poses, excavating from his thorough research a concise history of concealment and revelation from the Revolutionary War to the present. Atop this scholarship, he adds legal analysis and an attempt to map a regulatory framework that will keep the country secure, make the government accountable, and still preserve Americans’ civil liberties. Yet in overestimating the damage leaks cause and underestimating how hard it will be to stop them, Sagar arrives at recommendations that are ultimately too impractical and too restrictive.