“Secrecy is something like forbidden fruit…you can’t have it, it’s classified–and that makes you want it more,” is the opening line in this intriguing and informative documentary that delves deep into the world of official secrecy, the governmental kind, and shows the deleterious effects on both national security and global progress.
Keeping secrets, this documentary argues, is a way for nation states and hierarchical organizations to hold on to power, at a time when people need to know the truth more than ever to steer a course to a free and democratic future. “Secrecy corrupts. From extraordinary rendition to warrant-less wiretaps and Abu Ghraib, we have learned that, under the veil of classification, even our leaders can give in to dangerous impulses. Secrecy increasingly hides national policy, impedes coordination among agencies, bloats budgets and obscures foreign accords; secrecy throws into the dark our system of justice and derails the balance of power between the executive branch and the rest of government,” the film expounds.
Secrecy explores this tension between national security and corruption of power. Directed by Peter Galison, a Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and filmmaker Rob Moss, these two filmmakers have found the perfect blend of fact, social commentary and activism. Using historical footage and expert interviews, the pair show the way secrecy has evolved since the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, where the race for the atomic bomb was a national need, into the way governments routinely use ‘national security’ to cover their private agendas.
The path of secrecy peaks at 9/11 and the effects of not sharing information is said to impede the function of national security. But after 9/11 secrecy becomes the new mantra, and the start of the surveillance state begins in earnest, Homeland Security is born, and government data centers start springing up across the USA to monitor all internet and communications. The current zeitgeist of total global surveillance, NSA-leaks and information warfare can thus be seen to have its origins here at ‘ground zero’.
This 2008 film largely looks at the Bush administration-era policy around secrecy and lawyers and policy activists attempts to bring a cowboy administration to the courts and the light. It has some surprising interviews from government and ex-government military and spy agency officials arguing for both sides of the secrecy line, and looking objectively at the effects on democracy and the American experiment.
The interviews include explosive opinions from Mike Levin, the Chief Information Policy maker for the NSA (National Security Agency) for almost 50 years, who calls leakers “traitors”. Journalists like Barton Gellman from the Washington Post are on the other side of the fence, and he claims to be as much a patriot as the soldiers in defending reportage of official secrets in the public interest. Hording the right to decide what secrets are kept from the public is profoundly un-American, Gellman claims
Overall, Secrecy is a valuable documentary on the history of modern information keeping, and the uniquely American way secrets are held by those in power.