Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Secrecy: The Coin of the Realm


Secrecy: The Coin of the Realm

Peter Schultz


            It’s been said that JFK tried to keep the US out of Vietnam covertly or secretly, while LBJ got the US into Vietnam covertly or secretly. In his book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, Ken Hughes has a section “Fear of a Damaging Disclosure,” in which he recounts how Nixon feared “that his own secrets would leak.” [104] And Nixon tried to maintain his secret Operation Menu – his secret bombing campaign in Cambodia – even after the national security rationales for doing so were no longer relevant. Question: What is going on here? Are these men all paranoids? Why the apparent obsessions with secrecy?


            It is important to ask: What does secrecy do, or what does it accomplish? One thing it does is to divert any questions about the overall impact of particular policies. Because of Nixon’s secrecy, “no stories had appeared in print drawing the connection between the secret bombing of Cambodia and all of its calamitous consequences. The ‘whole story of the Menu series,’ as Nixon put it, remained untold.” [105]


            So, secrecy diverts attention away from the underlying policies, thereby affirming those policies surreptitiously, without having to face debate or to gain consent for those policies. In other words, secrecy is a way of governing while bypassing the consent of the governed; it is an oligarchic way of governing, a way of governing favored by the few against the many. Oligarchs construct regimes of secrets because in that way they can govern the many without seeking the consent of the many. In oligarchies, and especially in oligarchies where the oligarchs pretend to be democratic, secrecy is politically compelling. Secrecy is oligarchic because it serves the needs of the few against the needs or desires of the many. Secrecy keeps power in the hands of the few, limiting or bypassing the power of the many.  


            So, when secrecy is the coin of the realm, so to speak, then it may be said that the realm is oligarchic. It will be practiced widely and continually, as it was during Nixon’s presidency, as well as during other, if not all other presidencies. While Hughes focuses, as most people do, on Nixon’s penchant for secrecy, he overlooks the facts that others, e.g., the Washington Post and the NY Times practiced secrecy as well by not revealing the source or sources of the Pentagon Papers. And, of course, Daniel Ellsberg practiced secrecy as well as he copied those papers and then gave them surreptitiously to others. Just like Nixon, the Post, the Times, and Ellsberg had to practice secrecy to successfully implement their policies and achieve their goals.


            Moreover, major governmental agencies practice secrecy as well, e.g., the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the IRS. In fact, it is difficult to imagine these organizations being able to operate openly, i.e., without relying on pervasive and officially protected secrecy. If, as Hughes wrote, that “Legally, [there] was no reason to keep [Menu] secret, [while] politically [there] was a compelling one,” [105] then it may be said that there are politically compelling reasons – that is, oligarchic reasons – for bureaucratic agencies to practice secrecy.


            To accuse Nixon of practicing what may be called “a politics of secrecy,” as if this distinguished him from other presidents or other governmental officials and organizations, is either naïve or dishonest. Nixon practiced a politics of secrecy just as other presidents have done so, especially his two predecessors, JFK and LBJ, both of whom undertook, secretly, major policy initiatives, for better and worse. And, of course, those presidents, just like Nixon, had to engage in cover ups in order to keep those policies secret. Which is to say, all three presidents knew they were operating in an oligarchy and so they knew that they could not succeed except secretly.

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