The Black Arts

There are secrets and there are secrets, and it is distinguishing between the two that has challenged some of the best minds of our time—currently Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s—to come up with a workable commonsense approach to keeping secrets. Such an approach would grant the United States government power to remain silent about the few genuine secrets that matter, while compelling it to disgorge in reasonably good time the oceans of paper stamped “secret” solely in order to relieve officials of the awkward duty of explaining why they have done, predicted, or recommended something dumb.

What is a secret that matters? Answer: any undertaking of the state which requires for its success that it be unknown, unobserved, or unanticipated. Classic examples would be the time and place proposed for the Allied invasion of France in 1944, or Boris Yeltsin’s plan to devalue the ruble. But most official American secrets—roughly six million new classified documents a year, at last count—record the conversation of the government with itself. Now that we have the actual report in hand in Bay of Pigs Declassified we can see that the CIA’s Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation, printed in something like twenty copies and circulated in the fall of 1961 to a handful of high CIA and government officials, contained a bushel of legitimate secrets. The Survey was not only a devastating critique of the agency’s unrealistic and even reckless plans to overthrow Fidel Castro by invading Cuba, but it served as a kind of blueprint of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans and discussed frankly the conduct of a struggle while it was still underway. You could argue that the policy was unwise or unworkable, but you could hardly fault the Kennedy administration for trying to keep secret exactly where and how it went wrong in a first attempt to achieve a goal—the overthrow of Castro—to which it was redoubling its commitment.

What is a secret of convenience? Answer: any item of information which, if released, might invite non-trivial public criticism of policies, endeavors, or officials. Governments entertain rosy hopes, overlook imminent dangers, lie about their purposes, and do foolish things just as people do, and so long as these gaffes remain unknown they do not have to be explained, defended, or, sometimes most difficult of all, openly confessed. For more than twenty years, and certainly since the 1976 publication of many of the agency’s darkest and most embarrassing secrets in the numerous green-bound volumes of the Church Committee Report, the Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation has been an outstanding example of this sort of secret, too. “In unfriendly hands,” wrote the deputy director of the CIA, General Charles Cabell, back in 1961, “it [the Survey] can become a weapon unjustifiably [used] to attack the entire mission, organization, and functioning of the Agency.” Unfriendly hands have got it at last, but it took thirty-seven years, much water has …

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