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Book News

Senator: 'culture of secrecy' impedes good government

'Secrecy: The American Experience'
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Yale University Press, $22.50

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: Thursday, October 22, 1998 3:18:54 PM EDT

(CNN) -- If the federal government had revealed all it knew about Soviet espionage activities in the United States during and after World War Two, there might have been no McCarthy era. If the U.S. intelligence community had heeded its own analysis of the Soviet economy in the aftermath of World War Two, there might have been no Cold War. Those are two of the stunning conclusions Daniel Patrick Moynihan draws from his study of the way America keeps its secrets.

In "Secrecy", the Democratic U.S. senator from New York lays out the evidence that led him to those conclusions. He also makes a case that the culture of secrecy in the federal government has served as a major impediment to reasoned actions by generations of America's leaders and its citizens.

Moynihan was a founding member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was also the chairman of the government Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, which issued its recommendations in 1997. He knows how the secrecy game is played. In fact, he resigned from the Senate committee when he learned the CIA had placed mines in Nicaraguan harbors without first notifying Congress, as then-Director William Casey has personally pledged to do.

Moynihan's book, with an informative and insightful introduction by historian Richard Gid Powers, traces the roots of the "security state" to World War One. Its seeds were planted by President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to protect military secrets from disclosure during wartime. By the time of World War Two, the government had developed an entire bureaucracy devoted to keeping secrets. During the Cold War, that bureaucracy mushroomed. By the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, Moynihan argues, it had become a virtual government unto itself.

In the middle of World War Two, U.S. military intelligence began routinely intercepting messages between the Soviet Union and the United States. They were doubly encrypted. A special team, code named Venona, was established outside Washington to break the code. Eventually, it began to make headway. Ultimately, 2900 Venona intercepts were deciphered. They exposed the extent of the Soviet espionage apparatus within the United States. The FBI knew all about it, of course, since it was the bureau's job to catch spies. But the Venona intercepts were never used to prosecute Soviet agents. President Harry Truman was never told about them. Military leaders, in particular Gen. Omar Bradley, didn't want to tip off Moscow that the U.S. had broken its most secret code. The sad irony is that by the early 1950's, Moscow already knew. British spy Kim Philby had spilled the beans.

Examining the Venona intercepts half a century later, Moynihan shows how they could have effectively ended the McCarthyite witch-hunt. McCarthy claimed there were Soviet spies everywhere and Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. Thanks to Venona, the intelligence community knew exactly who the Soviets had spying in America. Venona confirmed the story former Communist Whittaker Chambers told about his friend Alger Hiss. It also supported the allegations against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for passing atomic bomb secrets to Moscow. The intercepts could have blunted the outrage caused by the perception that the evidence was skimpy -- or worse, trumped up -- in both cases. But they remained secret.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, on the other hand, was attacking the government from the opposite direction. He claimed federal agencies either didn't know how extensive Soviet infiltration had become, or were complicit in it. The Venona intercepts gave U.S. intelligence a pretty clear picture of which American Communists were working for the Soviets, but they couldn't tell McCarthy, or anyone else. It was secret.

"Not for another forty years would government tell what it actually knew about the Communist conspiracy: there had indeed been one, but it had never been massive; it has first been contained, then suppressed. A democracy does not leave its citizens uninformed on these matters."

Moynihan sees another danger in the cult of secrecy: governmental self-delusion. Knowledge that is held in secret is deemed to be more valuable than knowledge that is in the public domain. Case in point: a famous essay now known to have been written by State Department official George Kennan in 1947. Under the penname "X" he analyzed the state of the post-war Soviet Union. His conclusion: it couldn't last. Stalinism, he determined, contained the seeds of its own destruction. The intelligence community roundly criticized his assessment, which appeared in "Foreign Affairs" magazine. They knew better. Of course, they couldn't say why. It was secret. Forty-five years later, the CIA was still projecting the future threat of a Soviet Union that was crumbling before its blinkered eyes. If U.S. policy makers had listened to Kennan, Moynihan tells us, the past fifty years of world history could have been very different. Instead, they were seduced by the cult of secrecy.

Moynihan's indictment of "secrecy-as-official-policy" is ringing. If the government refuses to tell its citizens the truth, they are denied their right to make informed decisions. At the same time, the government cult of secrecy fosters popular cults of conspiracy. We've all heard the argument: the government knows more than it's willing to tell us about fill in the blank -- the Kennedy assassination, UFO's, fluoridated water. A government that won't share its secrets with the governed does more than foster cynicism, Moynihan argues. It undercuts the foundation of democracy.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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