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Solving the 'secrecy dilemma' for democracies

Michigan State University


IMAGE: In his new book, Michigan State University's Michael Colaresi is one of the first researchers to suggest and test practical solutions to balancing presidential secrecy and accountability. view more

Credit: Oxford University Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- National security secrets can benefit democracies, but only if there's a strong system in place to later dig those secrets up, a Michigan State University political scientist finds in a new book.

The war on terrorism has rekindled a centuries-old debate on the proper balance between executive secrecy and accountability. Some government critics have applauded the efforts of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden to leak national security information.

In "Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security," published by Oxford University Press, MSU's Michael Colaresi is one of the first researchers to suggest and test practical solutions to balancing presidential secrecy and accountability.

Democratic presidents around the world do, in fact, need the power to conceal some national security information to ward off threats, Colaresi argues. One example of executive secrecy that made sense, he said, was the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which was carried out covertly with the use of previously undisclosed helicopter technology.

But these secrets do not need to be kept forever, Colaresi explained. Retrospective oversight is a boon for democratic security.

"Immediate secrets are indeed valuable, but that importance declines over time," Colaresi said, "For example, the location and the timing of the raid on the bin Laden compound was critical to keep secret before and during the operation, but as time has gone on, there is less reason for secrecy."

Colaresi said democratic nations that have stronger powers to retrospectively publicize intelligence generate greater public support and win more of their international disputes, as opposed to democracies that lack these accountability powers.

Yet, while all democracies have the power to keep national security information secret from the public, giving an executive that power means you can no longer be sure what is behind the veil of classification. Secrecy powers have been abused many times - from the Dreyfus Affair and Propaganda in World War I to Watergate - which in turn creates public skepticism of executive policies.

"Are secrets being kept to save lives or save the incumbent from embarrassment?" Colaresi said.

For democracies, retrospective oversight opens up the possibility that executives can keep secrets when they are crucial, but then open themselves up to evaluation through strong legislative committee investigations and freedom of information requests to remain accountable.

Unfortunately, Colaresi said, the United States in the past decade has slipped in this regard by centralizing power in the executive branch and reducing staff on intelligence oversight committees. Countries such as Norway, Canada and the Netherlands, meanwhile, are setting the example globally.

"Currently there is significant skepticism in the United States and United Kingdom about what their governments are doing in the name of national security," Colaresi said. "What we need are better 'shovels' - in this case, strong oversight - for digging up secrets after the fact to reassure people that technology has not outpaced our ability to oversee its potential abuses."


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