A Crisis of Confidentiality: A Review of 'Lords of Secrecy' by Scott Horton

Editor's note:

This article appeared in The Cyber Issue in Winter 2016.

Bebe Santa-Wood
June 23, 2017

The greatest threat to American democracy may be something completely intangible. In Lords of Secrecy, attorney and journalist Scott Horton makes the compelling case that the growth of secrecy within the U.S. government since the Cold War has unequivocally changed the landscape of democracy, power, and decisionmaking in the United States. The clandestine nature of this subject makes it a challenging topic to break down, but Horton delves into it with detailed analyses. As per his account, the language the U.S. government uses to defend their use of secrecy is deeply coded, mired in jargon and arguments designed to deflect criticism. Horton deftly teases apart the topic, and deploys thrilling examples demonstrating how access to information is endangered.  

The “lords of secrecy,” as Horton calls them, are security and policy elites in positions of power within the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, NSA, and Department of Homeland Security who treat secrecy as a tool to assert greater authority and power within their own institutions, and encroach on the overall direction of American foreign policy.  

Utilizing the changing technology of warfare, these elites have slowly made themselves impervious to critique or consequences. The decisions they make have a deep impact, whether it is kick-starting U.S. military campaigns without vetting public reaction, the growing invasive nature of homeland security, or even the swift retribution for anyone who dares to question them. Such an atmosphere of secrecy erodes the checks and balances within the democratic system. 

Horton begins his argument by looking at classical Athenian and early American democracy, arguing transparency and access to information are foundations of modern democracy. This can feel reductionist at times, but through historical frames, Horton reminds us that our current culture of secrecy is a modern invention and one already negatively impacting American democracy. For example, Horton points out the preoccupation with surveillance and secrecy-focused technologies paint democracy as something that weakens the state to enemies, both real and imagined. In contrast, Athenian democracy, as Horton argues, was focused on people banding together in the name of “collective security,” creating a political climate where people work together openly on common goals of security.   

To further emphasize this, Horton uses the work of sociologists like Max Weber and George Simmel to examine the extent to which secrecy can be used as a tool for elites to consolidate power within bureaucratic institutions. While the bureaucratic elite has steadily grown since the Cold War, he argues that the Vietnam War created a crisis wherein citizen response infringed on elite power. This ushered in an era of even greater secrecy, aided with the rise of warfare technology, that makes it easier than ever to conduct wars and collect information that the American public was never fully briefed on. After Vietnam, money was poured into creating weaponry that was less dependent on large armies, with Horton identifying the predator drone as a turning point. The very phrase “zero casualty” in relations to war technology is a way to divert attention away from the very real consequences of this technology.   

And for times when people were still needed on the ground? Bureaucratic elites shifted more warfare to the realm of contractors, where there was less accountability and transparency. And as this culture of secrecy grew, so too did the assumption that classified information was inherently more important or vital to national interests. As Horton argues, information marked classified has far more to do with protecting the lords of secrecy as it does to issues of national security. 

Horton moves his argument on to concrete examples of the prevalence of secrecy in the arenas of drone warfare, the war against whistleblowers, the legal framework for prosecuting issues related to secrecy, and the 2011 and 2013 military campaigns in Libya and Syria, respectively.  Delving into U.S. wars waged in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11 that were run as “covert operations,” one gets a sense of the real human cost of secrecy.   

As for internal attempts to confront these problems, Horton argues that an ongoing “war against whistleblowers” has stymied real attempts to address the lack of transparency. Horton sees whistleblowers as neither heroes nor traitors. Rather, his concern lies with the swift retribution many whistleblowers face and the lack of consequences for elites truly holding the power.  

Traditional democratic oversight like internal reporting mechanisms, parliament/congressional inquiry, courts, and a free press have all been silenced or are not working the way they are meant to. Horton’s analysis and critique is at its most cutting and relevant here, particularly in regards to the rise of covert drone operations and retribution for bureaucratic whistleblowers. While Horton looks at failures on an executive and congressional level, and occasionally within the media, the blame is still placed heavily on the shoulders of current security elites. Given the lengths to which their operations are kept secret, Horton’s investigation and analysis of these case studies is all the more impressive.  

As for the future role of secrecy in the U.S. government, Horton notes that the Obama administration has put in place reasonable criteria for classified information but lack of enforcement remains the root problem. Horton advocates for greater sanctions when systems are abused, and relatively straight-forward approaches to oversight, such as better information system technology, periodic audits, and better protection for whistleblowers. There is an urgency to Horton’s argument, as he describes this new convoluted system of bureaucracy as a “modern tower of Babel” slowly, but steadily, wearing down the core of American democracy.  

In Lords of Secrecy, Horton has written an accessible and timely take on an issue that will likely only grow in importance in the coming years. More than anything it provides a valuable jumping-off point for citizens, reporters, and policymakers to dig further into research, and demand greater accountability from our leaders. 

Bebe Santa-Wood is currently pursuing a master of international affairs at Columbia University. She graduated with a bachelor of arts from Beloit College and was formerly a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Turkey.