Democracy Vs. Secrecy

Democracies and Their Spies by Bruce Berkowitz : The other day, I was discussing some of the evidence presented by Colin Powell at the UN, and, as is readily apparent, the presentation did not warrant a conclusion that an invasion of Iraq is necessary. By its very nature, intelligence requires secrecy. Public knowledge places everyone on a level playing field, but intelligence, by its scarcity and exclusivity, tilts the field to your advantage. Thus, what can be released at any given time must be limited to that which does not nullify whatever advantage said intelligence provides. At this point, however, you are faced with a difficult question:

Now the challenge of operating an intelligence organization in a democracy becomes clear: Voting is essential for democracy; freedom of information is essential for voting; but free-flowing information defeats the functions of intelligence. Or, to put it another way, information is the engine that makes democracy work, whereas the effectiveness of intelligence depends on restricting the flow of information.

Berkowitz seeks to answer this challenge by examining how much secrecy usually exists in a democracy. As it turns out, secrecy in a democratic government is actually a common, and sometimes even necessary, occurrence:

Democracies are not strangers to secrets. Protecting secrets when appropriate, disclosing secrets when proper, and managing secrecy are all normal parts of the democratic process. The same principles that are used to strike a balance among competing interests in a democracy can be used to oversee intelligence secrets as well.

The article is well written and organized, and it provides at least a partial answer to the burning questions that intelligence faces. I say “partial” because Horowitz’s answer is strategic in nature, meaning that it’s looking at the long term effects of keeping and releasing intelligence. In the short term, though, it sure would be nice to know what our government knows about Iraq.