The senior US senator from New York analyzes the roots of America's obsession with government secrecy and convincingly...


SECRECY: The American Experience

The senior US senator from New York analyzes the roots of America's obsession with government secrecy and convincingly pleads for its dismantling. A stint as chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy provided Moynihan (Miles to Go, 1996; Pandaemonium, 1993; etc.) with a unique vantage point from which to survey our byzantine and bizarre national security apparatus. Moynihan traces much of the impetus for secrecy back to 1917, when the Espionage Act, passed amid revelations about German intelligence efforts in the US, sought to prevent the unlawful obtaining of defense information by foreign governments. As counterproductive as German spying was, so was the response, of the ostensibly liberal Woodrow Wilson, who threatened the civil liberties of German-Americans. The need to protect secrets in WWII resulted in a repeat of this hysteria about loyalty and conspiracy (this time, regarding Japanese-Americans). As noted by historian Richard Gid Powers in his trenchant introduction, Moynihan's most formidable insight (borrowed from Max Weber) is that secrecy is a form of regulation in which bureaucrats hoard secrets like assets. Moynihan's commission learned, for instance, that the US army decoded secret Soviet cables corroborating espionage charges against Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, yet never revealed their existence, even to President Truman. New security organizations such as the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency ""prevented [the] American government from accurately assessing the enemy and then dealing rationally with them during this and other critical periods."" The costs of this, Moynihan argues persuasively, have been steep: liberal-conservative strife over the existence of Soviet espionage; attacks on civil liberties; presidents entangled in scandal (Watergate doomed Nixon, and Iran-contra almost did the same to Reagan); and ruinous arms-race spending against a rival whose decline the CIA never managed to predict. An intelligent, ironic postmortem on a system that is not only outdated but was flawed from the start.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998


Page Count: 320

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1998

Close Quickview