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Secrecy: The American Experience Paperback – December, 1999

16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300080797 ISBN-10: 0300080794

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Editorial Reviews

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Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) was one of the first members of the United States government openly to predict the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union--and, by extension, statist communism--as far back as the late '70s, as political historian Richard Gid Powers reminds readers in a lengthy introduction (comprising approximately one-fifth of Secrecy's total length). Had we spent less time trying to gather secret information about the Soviets and more time openly discussing rather easily interpretable data, Sen. Moynihan argues, we might have been far less paranoid about the supposed Red menace. The problem, he writes, lies in the essential nature of government secrecy: "Departments and agencies hoard information, and the government becomes a kind of market. Secrets become organizational assets, never to be shared save in exchange for another organization's assets.... The system costs can be enormous. In the void created by absent or withheld information, decisions are either made poorly or not at all."

Sen. Moynihan draws upon several incidents to make his point, from the Army's deliberate withholding from President Harry Truman of information about Soviet spy rings to the disastrous 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs to the Iran-Contra affair. The senator knows whereof he speaks; he was for eight years a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Secrecy ably combines hands-on experience and historical perspective, calling for the United States to take advantage of the new era in international relations to implement policies that once again encourage the open, uninhibited flow of information among government agencies and, whenever possible, the public. --Ron Hogan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In his decades of governmental service, New York Senator Moynihan has championed the principles of liberal democracy, in its original sense. His intellectual rigor and wry demeanor are both amply evident in this signal work on the state of American democracy. His skepticism of the secrecy bureaucracy began in the '70s, when he was ambassador to India, and reached a high point when CIA director William Casey lied to him about the Iran-Contra affair. He became the chairman of the 1995-1996 Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy and there continued his investigation into the scope and repercussions of governmental secrecy with further research and privileged access to major players within the FBI, CIA and executive office. Starting with Wilson's Espionage Act of 1917, institutionalized secrecy expanded, culminating in the McCarthy era and the continued disastrous miscalculations of Soviet strength right up to the moment of the U.S.S.R.'s collapse. Moynihan argues that secrecy, while necessary in a very few cases, is both counter to democracy and antithetical to well-informed choices, since what is not known cannot be debated or debunked. The inherent propensity of the bureaucracy to enlarge its powers has resulted in exponential increases in what is "classified," and national decisions are dictated by an unaccountable few. While details of momentous cases, such as the Verona project's successful break of Soviet code, with the concomitant implication of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, and the Iran-Contra affair, are on public record, it is Moynihan's skill as a social scientist that integrates them into a succinct historical analysis of the American culture of secrecy.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (December 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300080794
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300080797
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,089,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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Senator Moynihan applies his intellect and his strong academic and historical bent to examine the U.S. experience with secrecy, beginning with its early distrust of ethnic minorities. He applies his social science frames of reference to discuss secrecy as a form of regulation and secrecy as a form of ritual, both ultimately resulting in a deepening of the inherent tendency of bureaucracy to create and keep secrets-secrecy as the cultural norm. His historical overview, current right up to 1998, is replete with documented examples of how secrecy may have facilitated selected national security decisions in the short-run, but in the long run these decisions were not only found to have been wrong for lack of accurate open information that was dismissed for being open, but also harmful to the democratic fabric, in that they tended to lead to conspiracy theories and other forms of public distancing from the federal government. He concludes: "The central fact is that we live today in an Information Age. Open sources give us the vast majority of what we need to know in order to make intelligent decisions. Decisions made by people at ease with disagreement and ambiguity and tentativeness. Decisions made by those who understand how to exploit the wealth and diversity of publicly available information, who no longer simply assume that clandestine collection-that is, 'stealing secrets'-equals greater intelligence. Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the key to security....Secrecy is for losers."
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By apardoe@worldnet.att.net on December 11, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Senator Moynihan quickly covers US government secrecy from early US history, through to the 1797 Alien and Sedition Act and 1917 Espionage Act, to the National Security Act of 1947, to the Freedom of Information Act, and to the current US policies on national security. Within this time frame, he covers WWI, between the wars, WWII, the Cold War, the battles against totalitarianism and communism, and his thoughts on our future course for national security in an open society. Within this, he discusses J. Edgar Hoover (FBI), the CIA, and the NSA;Truman, McCarthyism, atom and hydrogen bombs, Bay of Pigs, Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Carter and Reagan,Iran and Contras, Nicaragua,Viet Nam, and the failure of Russia and communism. He explains how excessive secrecy can be not only expensive and curtail freedoms, but all too often has proved to be ineffective or to lead to bad decisions, policies, and results. Moynihan points out how US intelligence failed to recognize the importance of Russia's Lennist-Marxist enormous social and economic problems, concentrating on the military, and how those problems greatly contributed to bringing down a military-atomic giant.
Moynihan recognizes the need for secrecy in defense, military, and police actions in an often unfriendly world, but says it is all too often and unnecessarily over done and slow to declassify, causing over-blown, hyper-secret departmental and agency bastians of power, bureaucracy, unnecessary spending, poor defense and security decisions, and lack of reported responsiblity.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By jedit@westnet.com, James O. Wade on November 8, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Senator Moynihan, with many years of experience in the arcane world of congressional oversight of our intelligence agencies, shows how and why the American government classifies (i.e. withholds from public knowledge) an astonishing variety of information--when often the information that really matters is more likely to be found in your daily paper than in government archives. The most astounding revelation (of many) is why Omar Bradley, on behalf of the US Army, did not allow President Truman to know what the Venona intercepts of Russian intelligence communications revealed about the real degree of Soviet penetration of our government. Thus it was left to a bizarre cast of characters like the drunken Sen. McCarthy and the disenchanted Chambers and Bentley to give an ill-informed and partial picture of such penetration. Bradley's dutiful but obtuse territorial withholding of Army intelligence from his Commander-in-Chief deprived Truman of vital information that could have made a profound difference in waging the Cold War and averted collateral damage to domestic civility and polity. This sort of "classification" and "need-to-know" would poison American politics and skew American intelligence for fifty years. And if you don't think that the bureaucratic reflex to restrict, without good reason, the free flow of information isn't still harming this country, you had better read this cogent and powerful book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth E. Fernandez on December 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
A very interesting account of governmental secrecy during various times of conflict. Would make a nice supplemental reading for professors teaching a American Politics course. I touches upons foreign policy and the relationship between the Executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Most of the material deals with the development of secrecy as a standard operating procedure during WWI and WWII. Vietnam and the Iran-Contra Affair are touched upon but could have been expanded.
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