[Originally published in Social Research]
I) Reflections on Secret-keeping and Identity
In the “national security” area of the government–the White House, the departments of state and defense, the armed services and the “intelligence community,” along with their contractors–there is less whistleblowing than in other departments of the executive branch or in private corporations. This despite the frequency of misguided practices and policies within these particular agencies that are both more well-concealed and more catastrophic than elsewhere, and thus even more needful of unauthorized exposure.
The mystique of secrecy in the universe of national security, even beyond the formal apparatus of classification and clearances, is a compelling deterrent to whistleblowing and thus to effective resistance to gravely wrongful or dangerous policies. In this realm, telling secrets appears unpatriotic, even traitorous. That reflects the general presumption–even though it is very commonly false–that the secrecy is aimed not at domestic, bureaucratic or political rivals or the American public but at foreign, powerful enemies, and that breaching it exposes the country, its people and its troops to danger.
Even those insiders who have come to understand that the presumption is frequently false and that particular facts are being wrongly and dangerously kept secret not so much from foreigners but from Congress, courts or the public are strongly inhibited from speaking out by an internalized commitment to keep official secrets from outsiders, which they have promised to do as a condition of employment or access.
To be sure, there are strong, usually more than adequate careerist incentives not to break those promises. Being found to do so exposes officials to loss of access to meetings and information, loss of clearance, demotion or loss of promotion, loss of job or career, loss of retirement benefits, harm to marriage or to children’s prospects that comes with loss of income, even danger of prosecution and prison. The last risk is much less likely than they are led to believe—at least, that was true prior to the present Obama administration — but the other job-related penalties are not, and they prove more than sufficient to keep most secret-keepers from breaking the rules in ways that would expose them to such losses, even when the welfare of many others is at stake.
However, as a former insider I can attest to psychological dimensions of this behavior that seem rarely to have been discussed. They seem worthy of some extended reflection here, given my own motive to understand this behavior in order in some respects to change it. In my experience, the psychological stakes for officials in keeping their commitment to keep secrets-even what appear to be “guilty” secrets that not only preclude democratic accountability but endanger the welfare of many people–go beyond careerist calculations of keeping a job or possible punishments for disobedience, influential and even sufficient as those considerations generally are.