State secrecy is increasingly used as the explanation for the shrinking of public discussion surrounding national security issues. The phrase “that’s classified” is increasingly used not to protect national secrets from legitimate enemies, but rather to stifle public discourse regarding national security. Washington today is inclined to see secrecy as a convenient cure to many of its problems. But too often these problems are not challenges to national security, they involve the embarrassment of political figures, disclosure of mismanagement, incompetence and corruption and even outright criminality.
For national security issues to figure in democratic deliberation, the public must have access to basic facts that underlie the issues. The more those facts disappear under a cloak of state secrecy, the less space remains for democratic process and the more deliberation falls into the hands of largely unelected national security elites. The way out requires us to think much more critically and systematically about secrecy and its role in a democratic state.