Official Secrecy: Self, State and Society

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2004-07-12

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In meeting the threat posed by terrorism, the democratic state also faces a paradox: Those practices best suited to defending the state are often least suited to democracy. Such is the case with official secrecy, which has received renewed attention. Military and intelligence operations frequently depend on secrecy for their success. At the same time, democracy depends on openness, a fact too often neglected by democratic theory.

Democratic theory presumes that citizens are at least minimally capable of making decisions to steer the ship of state, a presumption that requires citizens not only to have the skills necessary to make political decisions but to have the information necessary to make those decisions competently. However, in many areas of the most vital public interest (e.g. foreign policy, nuclear weapons, decisions regarding war and peace), the state intentionally conceals information from citizens. While other factors, such as high information costs, may work against an informed citizenry, official secrecy is qualitatively different and uniquely damaging to democratic governance, even granting that in some instances it may be a necessary evil.

Official secrecy subverts the very democratic values it is frequently designed to protect, denying citizen competence, reducing accountability and diminishing the legitimacy of the state, as well as distorting the historical record and creating fertile ground for paranoid-style thinking. Democratic theorists have not been unaware of the importance of information to democratic citizenship. Indeed awareness has promoted the defense of the institutions of free expression as the best means for ensuring that necessary political information is accessible. However, that is no longer enough, as the last century has seen states become producers and repositories of information on a never-before-seen scale. The task for democratic theory now is to recognize this change in the information environment and recognize the importance of this new locus of political information. Understanding and minimizing the impact of official secrecy is a necessary part of this process.

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