Secret Foreign Policy Is Bad for Democracy

And bad foreign policy is just plain bad.


Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America's Stealth Warfare, by Scott Horton, Nation Books, 260 pages, $26.99

After 9/11, a con man named Dennis Montgomery convinced the feds that he was a software genius. His techniques, he told them, could reveal secret coded Al Qaeda messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts and positively identify specific terrorists from drone video. The New York Times reported in 2011 that Montgomery's lies "prompted an international false alarm that led President George W. Bush to order airliners to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean in 2003." And it looks like the feds paid handsomely for this misinformation. Montgomery's work for the government fell under contracts with the classified CIA Directorate of Science and Technology, but he claimed to have received a $30 million payout on just one contract. And he certainly spent money like he was an otherwise inexplicably wealthy man, including driving expensive Porsches and dropping nearly half a million in one day of gambling.

The government would prefer you never knew about any of that. When Montgomery was being sued by a former employer, then–Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte quashed any public court discussion of Montgomery's bizarre relationship with U.S. intelligence. He insisted that public revelations about how easily the country's protectors can be conned would constitute "serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage to the national security of the United States."

Democracy is supposed to transmit the people's will to our governors, but it's hard to argue that's the case when said governors can keep us ignorant about what they're doing and what it costs. However, the U.S. government has become increasingly adept at waving the flags of democracy and national security simultaneously.

The journalist and activist Scott Horton explores the tension between those two realities in Lords of Secrecy. The title is Horton's term for the mostly unelected elites who run the country's foreign-policy, espionage, and war-making machines.

The book delivers far more theory than specifics of secret foreign policy practice—disappointing in the wake of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's National Security Agency revelations. Horton indulges in more academic speculations about the Athenian conception of democracy than his task requires, and less in the way of details about actual secretive doings (though he does relate a decent quick version of the Dennis Montgomery scam). He bends over backward to seem "reasonable" to members of an imagined loyal opposition that believes transparency might be well and good, but some serious matters still need to be decided by serious people behind closed doors.

Horton grants the need for some secrecy in some areas of foreign policy and security, stressing that he's mostly concerned about process and democracy, not the substance of our elite's behavior per se. But America's Lords of Secrecy, as Horton's book itself reveals, act from values and indulge in behaviors that should be considered unacceptable even if passed by overwhelming plebiscite. Too much of what they do involves imprisoning, killing, and torturing people—or, less sinisterly but still maddeningly, covering up gross ineptitude and idiocy.

Horton starts with a story of government at war with itself. In 2014, the CIA misled and spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee (including clandestinely breaking into Senate computer systems) in an effort to hide evidence of its complicity in criminal torture. The supposed checks and balances between spies and citizens didn't work. Justice Department officials tasked with keeping the CIA in check instead enabled them, both authorizing specific questionable torture techniques and finding almost nothing to prosecute over after years of Justice-appointed special prosecutor investigation, which ended in 2011. Their buck-stops-here boss, President Barack Obama, helped the agency conceal evidence of likely criminality in the torture program while trumpeting his dedication to openness.

The Lords of Secrecy are not in the habit of offering themselves up for independent journalistic profiling. Even publishing their names can earn a threat of criminal prosecution for violating the 1981 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Horton writes of a CIA team leader responsible for the rendition and torture of a German grocer named Khalid el Masri—an official who "pressed hard for Masri to be imprisoned and tortured even when other CIA analysts doubted they had the right man and after the German government had confirmed that his German passport was authentic and he was therefore not the terrorist the CIA had been looking for." Horton also links this same woman's mistakes to pre-9/11 security failures and to a December 2009 suicide attack on a U.S. facility in Afghanistan that killed seven of her fellow agents. He further notes her strange yen for personally witnessing torture sessions. While Horton does not name her, she has been widely reported in other venues to be Alfreda Bikowsky. She's suffered no known professional trouble at the CIA.

A far worse fate awaits those who try to pierce the obfuscation and darkness. The most prominent have become larger-than-life media figures, such as the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and the leak facilitator Julian Assange. Less well known than Manning or Snowden are reporters who, in trying to do their jobs, have found the government prepared to make their lives miserable even if it's not prepared to prosecute them for reporting. Horton rushes over stories like those of James Risen (of The New York Times) and James Rosen (of Fox News), reporters who had their phone and email records seized during Espionage Act investigations of sources who spoke to them. (The government prefers just taking records under court order to forcing journalists to spill under subpoena.)

Neither case involved revelations any sane outside observer would consider damaging to legitimate ongoing national security concerns. As David E. Pozen pointed out in a huge 2013 Harvard Law Review article, leaking to the press is not actually the dire crime it's frequently made out to be. Instead, it is a common tool of internal political gamesmanship. The laws against it seem intended less to be obeyed than to serve as weapons for officials to use rarely and selectively against a government employee or contractor who sticks his neck out too far. (It's also a weapon deployed twice as often under Barack Obama as it was under all previous presidents combined since the Espionage Act was passed in 1917.)

Officials should not harass and punish First Amendment practitioners trying to give Americans a clearer sense of what our foreign policy and intelligence agencies do in our name. But generations of spies and spymasters have been empowered in the presumption that they can by the 1947 National Security Act. That law carved explicit legal space for endless secret war at any expense against a supposedly implacable foe.

Horton is overly impressed with the 1947 law's paper protections, such as the requirements that the president issue a written "finding" for covert actions, that such actions not violate either the Constitution or statute, and that CIA directors keep congressional intelligence committees fully informed of their skullduggery. He believes that "the architects of the national security state were keen to ensure that space for public debate was clear and sufficient information was provided to fuel [that debate]." That generation was apparently merely too trusting to realize that "the newly created institutions of the national security state would use secrecy to expand their power and authority beyond anything Congress anticipated." But failing to anticipate that these programs and agencies, acting in secret, would spread beyond their supposed good intentions rises to the level of political malfeasance, not mere naiveté.

Congress has largely ceded its traditional control over war to the executive. The Lords of Secrecy post-9/11 operate in a state of perpetual war, diminishing Congress' ability or willingness to rein them in. Drone wars especially provide an excuse to keep the doings of the elites under wraps. (If no actual American is in any physical danger, the logic goes, why do the American people need to know what's going on?) Drone war is as real as war can be, though, with U.S. forces killing around 4,000 people in other countries since 2002. We also have many reasons to believe drone strikes create more enemies than they kill. Yet Americans are kept in the dark about the hows, the whys, and the aftermaths of the targeting.

Control over the drones has been largely handed over to the CIA and to the Pentagon's secretive Joint Special Operations Command. This upsets the supposed balance between the military and the CIA that the National Security Act was meant to establish—giving, as Horton notes, the CIA its own Army and the Army its own CIA.

That said, most Americans don't seem to care what is being done abroad in our name. With wars conducted entirely overseas, fought by a volunteer army and flying robots, and causing little damage to the mainland since 9/11, Americans are overwhelmingly apathetic about the specifics of foreign policy. This endangers Horton's Athens-obsessed theme that the worst part of foreign policy secrecy is how it robs us of a truly "knowledge-based democracy."

Snowden is a case in point. Given how little effect his widely publicized revelations have had on electoral politics—is anyone going to win or lose an election over them?—why should we expect less secrecy would discipline our foreign policy elites? Thanks to Snowden, an alert American might know that our national security forces try to break into SIM card manufacturer networks, share metadata with domestic law enforcement, cooperate closely with and get their vision of the Middle East from extremely repressive regimes, harvest online images to improve their ability to identify people's faces worldwide, implant tracking devices in commercial network routers, and steal and analyze our text messages. We have no reason to believe any of this is effectively protecting the security of the citizens those intelligence agencies are supposed to serve. But there have been few negative consequences for the architects of those policies.

Even when Americans know how poorly our foreign policy mandarins' schemes work out, we have a terrible record of holding the people responsible to account. Wasteful wars, destructive meddling overseas, criminal torture that doesn't even work: None of it is really a secret, no matter how many documents are classified, journalists intimidated, leakers prosecuted. The real crime isn't that our foreign policy elites do what they do in secret. It's that they do what they do, period.