Secrecy and Politics

Sam Bond? Sounds funny

Jul 2nd 1998

From The Economist print edition

“SECRECY”, declared Cardinal Richelieu, “is the first essential in affairs of state.” But that bureaucrat-cum-politician was a 17th-century Frenchman. Today’s American equivalent—one of those clever types floating effortlessly between White House policy-making and Wall Street money-making (a Richard Holbrooke or Bob Rubin, for example)—is bedevilled by the Freedom of Information Act and by investigative reporters. If he held Richelieu’s view, he could never dare express it.

But why would he hold Richelieu’s view? Americans, be they powerful or humble, live in a culture of openness. They ask blunt questions—how much do you earn, how much did your house cost?—that make Europeans squirm. Politicians publish their tax returns and list their income and assets (a habit which this year embarrassingly reveals Vice-President Al Gore as a charity skinflint). Presidential appointees are questioned by Senate committees about their private activity as well as their professional ability. Lawyers embark on “discovery” expeditions, dredging through perhaps years of archives and emails (Ken Starr, in his role as President Clinton’s bogeyman, has even subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky’s reading lists). As the microchip mantra has it, this is the information age, and the more the better.

That is one reason why Americans have never felt comfortable about the Central Intelligence Agency: “the company”, as the spy novelists like to call it. True, the CIA now has its own website on the Internet, but this cyberspace openness has strict limits. Ordinary Americans sloppily equate information with disclosure, but the CIA has no such illusion: since information is power, let’s keep it to ourselves.

There are, of course, other reasons. It is hard to garner popularity while practising secrecy, and some of those triumphs of “covert action” that occasionally leak out to public scrutiny can be pretty controversial—for example, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 or aid in the 1980s to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas. And the disasters are etched deep in the public (or at least journalistic) memory: the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, for example, or the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s. So, too, is the list of “dirty tricks”, real or rumoured: complicity in the deaths of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and General Schneider in Chile, and plots to assassinate Lumumba in Congo (others succeeded where the CIA failed) and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

In theory, the CIA has forsaken homicidal tendencies. After all, by the late 1970s the government had explicitly prohibited it “from engaging, directly or indirectly, in assassinations”. But has it forsworn other nastinesses? Last week an American nun, Sister Dianna Ortiz, gave harrowing testimony to the congressional human rights caucus of the torture and rapes she had suffered in 1989 at the hands of Guatemalan security agents supervised by a mysterious “Alejandro”, who, she said, was “tall and fair-skinned and spoke halting Spanish, with a thick American accent. His English was American, flawless, unaccented.”

All of which raises an obvious question. If the CIA is so hamfisted, so beset by bureaucratic infighting (it has had five directors in the past decade, quite apart from several abortive nominations) or so unAmerican in its behaviour, does America need it—at least in its present form? Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York with an abiding scepticism concerning the CIA, argues in a forthcoming book (“Secrecy, the American Experience”) that “secrecy is for losers”. Despite its surveillance technology, its banks of analysts, its secret agents, the CIA in the late 1980s was ludicrously claiming that East Germany had a higher per capita output than West Germany and that the Soviet Union’s per capita income was higher than Italy’s.

In contrast, in the mid-1980s Mr Moynihan said it was common sense to predict that the “evil empire” would collapse with or without President Reagan’s expensive arms build-up. So too with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua: why bother with the law-breaking subterfuges of the Iran-contra affair when the Sandinist regime would sooner or later collapse through its own economic ineptitude?

The senator has a point. But does it really follow that “secrecy is for losers”? It is one thing to take a grand view of the ineluctable forces of the historical process, quite another to deal with the daily realities of that process: the plans of brutal dictatorships in the Middle East or North Korea to acquire nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; or the security of foreign oilfields on which American industry relies; or the threat of foreign terrorism to Americans at home or abroad. If the CIA did not exist, something like it would have to be invented.

Hence an apparent piece of political bravado: just as the CIA is at a particularly low point, having failed first to recognise the full extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programme and now to spot India’s preparations for nuclear tests, it says it needs more resources. Surveillance satellites, it observes, are no substitute for the mole in a foreign government or the agent masquerading as an innocent businessman or—heaven forbid—as an innocent journalist. According to the New York Times, quoting “officials” (anonymity dies hard, despite the website), the CIA therefore plans to hire five times more case officers next year than it did two years ago; to beef up its language and other training programmes; and to reopen several of the overseas stations once deemed irrelevant with the end of the cold war. That way, the congressional paymasters will be told, the American government will get better information for the $27 billion a year it gives the CIA and the rest of the “intelligence community”.

But will a better agency be better loved? It seems unlikely. Spies by definition work in secret and, as Mr Moynihan points out, openness is a singularly American characteristic. Perhaps that is why America’s only popular spy is a Scotsman, James Bond. “M” would have understood Richelieu perfectly.

© Hank Edmondson 2012