William Lederer

Secrecy in Government




Secrecy and disinformation have been from time immemorial the hallmarks of almost every ruler, and also of the so-called democratic modern states. In this writing, that is chapter 7 of Lederer's book A Nation of Sheep, the author shares the belief that disinformation leads to misinformation and both concur in keeping the people slave of the government.

Note by the author: Most of the specific examples in this chapter were gathered and published by the Advancement of Freedom of Information Committee of Sigma Delta Chi, a fraternity of professional journalists. Their campaign for abolishing unnecessary secrecy in government is outstanding.



The cult of government secrecy is growing.
The practice has become so widespread and routine that, according to testimony given before the House government information sub-committee, more than a million Federal
employees are empowered to classify information. This means that one out of every 180 Americans is stamping the word “secret” on papers. Thus our protective machinery has become so bulky it no longer is effective for really classified material; and, instead, it has turned into a monster which often swallows information which should be public knowledge.

Pictures of plush furnishings inside military transport planes, requested by Rep. Daniel J. Flood, were stamped “secret” and then even the Congressman's letter of request was stamped “secret.” Rep. Flood said, “It appears to me that this classification is designed to protect bureaucrats from embarrassment and not to protect the military secrets from potential enemies of the country.”

Obviously it is necessary to keep vital defence and diplomatic information away from potential enemies. Few citizens would dispute this. The guarding of legitimately secret material is important; but it has its own built-in dangers - some of which, if they get out of hand, can damage the nation even more than the loss of legitimately classified information.

The Chicago Daily News published on July 2, 1957, that a report on profiteering by foreign suppliers of the United States Military Services and the International Cooperation Administration had been classified and would not be released by the General Accounting Office. According to this newspaper, the lid was clamped on this scandal to prevent its revelation during discussion of Congressional appropriations for defence and foreign aid.

Often the triple-locked drawer of official secrecy becomes a hiding place for public problems which officials are frightened to discuss; or legislation they wish to delay; or scandals they desire to hide. It provides the government with an unethical device for releasing only such public information as is convenient.

Intelligence estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency are of the highest order of secrecy. Yet on November 19, 1956, on the eve of testimony of CIA officials before Congressional Committees on the effectiveness of their activities, the CIA “leaked” to favoured newspapers the fact that it had given the White House 24 hours' notice that a British-French-Israeli attack would be launched on Egypt. Had the CIA made an intelligence estimate to the opposite effect, it most certainly would have been regarded as too secret to mention.

The stampede for secrecy started with our development of the atomic bomb. As long as America had a monopoly on this weapon, we could keep order in the world. Our diplomatic demands could be loud and simple. American scientific and technological superiority had made our international relations easy. Complete secrecy on the bomb would guarantee that this pleasant situation continued.

Then came the frightful shock of learning that the Russians also had the bomb.
Who violated our security?

Other paralyzing blows followed: the revelations of Igor Gouzenko, the Russian code clerk. He told of a tremendous spy ring in America and Canada, a spy ring largely peopled by Americans and Canadians. We were also shocked by the Alger Hiss trial; the Bentley and Chambers testimonies; the convictions of Allen May and Klaus Fuchs; the Korean War; and finally the Russian triumph of Sputnik.

Spies, leaks, traitors, seditioners, subversives seemed to be crawling from under rugs and out of the woodwork. A hysteria panicked bureaucracy. Where could these security violations be coming from? (Still, despite the frantic measures to insure security, almost every embassy, military unit, USIS and ICA establishment overseas - and even CIA -employed foreigners as switchboard operators, receptionists, chauffeurs, servants - and in other positions privy to hearing conversations of governmental executives, of picking up papers, of witnessing the daily tenor of the place, observing the arrival and departures of personages with secret orders, etc.). We began to stamp “secret” on everything.

The Department of the Navy declined permission to Captain George W. Campbell for his story of the sinking during World War II of the cruiser Indianapolis to be printed in the Saturday Evening Post on the grounds that it would impede recruiting. When the Saturday Evening Post finally gained clearance from the Secretary of the Navy, the Navy Personnel Department, in a letter stamped “private communication” threatened censure of Captain Campbell.

The growth of secrecy-mania has resulted in citizens being denied information about the workings of the government whose only purpose is to serve the citizen. The bureaucrat has become a self-styled-sacred person; and the common man is blocked from finding out what the bureaucrats are doing, let alone, controlling them.

'The Post Office Department denied the Indianapolis News information on the names of persons leasing post office buildings in Indiana to the government, the amount of the leases, and the duration.

The problem is how much “right to know” can citizens give up in the name of government (and other public affairs) without stepping uncomfortably close to totalitarianism? If free Americans voluntarily elect to reduce their right to know - because an emergency requires it - this, then, is their privilege as members of a free society. But this has not yet occurred. At present we want information, and it is being denied us.

The Department of Defence ruled that only those persons with a “legitimate interest” are entitled to know the location of military bases where liquor is sold by the bottle; the ruling specifically mentioned wholesale liquor-dealers, but it implied that a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union would be denied the information on grounds of a lack of “legitimate interest.”

In the April 1959 issue of Progress Magazine, Senator T. C. Hennings, Jr., wrote that:

“Possibly the most celebrated example of outright suppression of information in recent years is the refusal of the Administration to release the Gaither Report to Congress. This report was submitted to the President by a group of prominent citizens after a lengthy study of national security requirements. It repeatedly warned that the United States faces its greatest peril in history. Despite its great importance to the nation as a whole, the Administration refused to reveal the contents of the Gaither Report to either the Congress or the public, apparently because of the great political embarrassment and public excitement which might have prevailed.”

There has been much argument over the Gaither Report. Many responsible people believe it was proper to suppress the information from both Congress and the public on the grounds that it was, in effect, research done by a Presidential committee as advice to the President. However, when rumours leaked out that the Committee believed the nation to be in grave peril, many legislators and editors believed that some knowledge of this danger should voluntarily be given Congress. It never was.

A publisher tried for months to obtain a list of 50 top officials in the Pentagon who were serving “on leave with pay.” This term means these men were drawing down both their regular salaries from their private employers and also full salaries from the Department of Defence. The publisher was refused this list.

In recent years, secrecy in government has become worse. The doctrine of “Executive Privilege” was established by George Washington to maintain the privacy of White House plans, discussions, and correspondence. Such protection is needed by the Chief Executive. But now (l960) the doctrine has been spread by Presidential letter and attorney-general ruling to embrace all executive department activities. These include, of course, State Department, Defence Department, and ICA. Furthermore, most of the Executive Department - the approximately 2,000 active agencies, bureaus, and departments and more than 5,000 advisory bureaus - conducts business in the secrecy “executive-session.”  As an example of this “iron curtain,” the 5,000 advisory bureaus do not even make the minutes of their meetings available for inspection to the citizens who pay the taxes.

Teams of State Department and ICA officials are sent to foreign countries to evaluate the American programmes there. These reports, because of “Executive Privilege,” are not made available to Congress. How can we know what is happening? Must Congress go overseas? Or must we wait until there is an international explosion before we are cut in?

The practice of “Privileged Information” is another government technique for withholding what often should be public property. In many instances the stamp of “Privileged Information” is used to keep un pleasant or unsavoury “secrets” from the people. Lists of Congressmen and their wives and dependents who go on free trips all over the world (and spend counterpart funds which they draw limitlessly from embassies abroad) are almost impossible to get. This is considered “For Official Use Only.”

Out of fear that public indignation would put a stop to junkets, the “inspection” trips of almost all public officials and their wives is considered as classified. The officials' fear is well founded. If the public knew about these trips, public opinion would soon put the axe to them. Last year there were over 1,000 VIP's recorded as having “inspections” of Hong Kong alone - a place which requires little inspection but which is superb for shopping and sight-seeing.

The range of suppression seems endless. The Department of Agriculture denied to the Aberdeen (Miss.) Examiner the names of Mississippi farmers who were paid not to plant cotton.

There is so much federal secrecy that even the records of the federal expenditure of, tax dollars are not open to the inspection of citizens, as are the records of city, county, and state governments throughout the land.

The Dayton Herald-Journal was unable to get official financial figures on the Annual National Air Show even though the Air Force, at taxpayer expense, furnished most of the airplanes and pilots.

About 80 billion dollars have been spent on foreign aid. We know how much is spent in general areas; but the way the money is allotted in individual countries is classified. Under this secrecy how can the American people ascertain whether their tax billions are honestly being spent at the terminal points; especially when the history of past expenditures reeks of inefficiency and corruption?

William H. Fitzpatrick, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, testified: “If government insists on secrecy, how could the people assemble to discuss the state of the Nation or petition the Government in the interest of their personal lives and fortunes? That must be the ultimate end of growing secrecy.

“... But an uninformed people must, in the end, become a misinformed people. And a misinformed people, while they may be told that they are safest and happiest in their serfdom to secrecy, are not a free people.”


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