Behind the issues Americans care most about lurks a troubling question: When rights and values are at stake, will the president make weighty decisions behind closed doors? Donald Trump takes office at a critical moment when new threats and technology have shattered old rules governing presidents’ stealth actions, and when leaders find it difficult to protect vital secrets or to provide the openness that the public expects. In remaking the role of secrecy in democracy for the 21st century, the American people and their leaders can learn from the courage and mistakes of presidents at earlier pivotal moments, according to the author of a provocative new book.
In PRESIDENTS’ SECRETS, Mary Graham, codirector of the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, tells the story of three crises when the need for secrecy and openness clashed dramatically and when presidents’ choices altered American democracy. She then chronicles the steps and missteps of Presidents Bush and Obama that suggest a road map for presidential secrecy and openness in the digital age.
These episodes reveal that secrecy tends to metastasize in times of uncertain threats like our own, nourished by the politics of fear. Once untethered, secrecy blocks checks on abuses of power. It becomes the invisible enemy of citizens’ rights. It squelches debate, encourages information-hoarding, and leaves officials uncertain of what they can and can’t do. It eats away at public trust and drains the confidence of allies. However, Graham explains, history also suggests that there is nothing inevitable about the sacrifice of openness or privacy in times of trouble. Much depends on the president’s aims, temperament, and far-sightedness. New kinds of government secrecy in the digital age challenge leaders to engage Congress and the public in new kinds of open debate even about the government’s most sensitive policies.