Moynihan tracks secrecy to the edge

October 04, 1998|By James Asher | James Asher,SUN STAFF

"Secrecy: The American Experience," by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Yale University Press. 262 pages. $22.50. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is the senior U.S. senator from New York State and - if the assessment of the FBI and the late J. Edgar Hoover is worth much - an egghead and skunk.

His newest book, "Secrecy: The American Experience," is proof that the nation could use more such intellectual rascals. In didactic detail, Moynihan builds an impressive argument that secrecy is not the ointment to preserve democracy but the oil upon which our liberties slip.

He begins, as all good arguments do, with those fledgling days of the nation and the vigorous debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that accompanied Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800.

The purpose of the laws was to restrict commentary by those opposing a possible war with France, to expel alien dissidents and to fine or imprison those who brought disrepute to high government officials. (The war never materialized and the Acts were either allowed to expire or were legislated away.)

Moynihan points to these as the country's first attack on liberty in the face of foreign dalliances. Since then, the cloak of foreign policy and its first cousin, national security, have been at the root of employing secrecy as a pervasive tool of government.

Its next great exercise came at the urging of the esteemed Woodrow Wilson, who saw the German foment in the United States preceding World War I as perfect justification to "crush out" those Prussian immigrants who "have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life."

One key element was a censorship provision for use against the press. While censorship was not enacted, Wilson's Espionage Act set in motion a series of remarkable laws that Moynihan argues has created a culture of secrecy in government.

But watch how Moynihan shows the folly of such secrecy. Fast forward eight decades from Wilson's time. With 20-20 hindsight, Moynihan invests in a single article in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine the period's most prescient position: The Soviets had no speedy timetable for world domination. Time was on America's side.

And with the collapse of the Soviet state, Moynihan finds ample evidence in the non-classified world that described the Soviet Union's economy as fragile, more like that of a Third World Nation than a vital superpower.

The combination of such assessments is that we all should have known the Soviets would collapse from their own ineptitude. Such a point is soothing, but not particularly persuasive. Nor is Moynihan's collateral argument much better that only secrecy interferes with an understanding of the true state of foreign affairs.

Surely, secrecy is to be opposed. The good senator's arguments against secrecy, crafted as they are on the lofty plain of foreign relations and intelligence gathering, make global good sense. Who would not have wanted to avoid the Cold War or the Bay of Pigs? How many fewer sleepless nights might we all have had?

Yet are we to believe that the forces of openness would have altered the Cold War or preserved John F. Kennedy from his Bay of Pigs or even saved the presidency of Richard Milhouse Nixon, the incurable paranoid?

I think not.

The forces that encouraged the Cold War included self-interest. The great Military Industrial Complex as Ike called it. There is also that insatiable thirst for power and an omnipresent terror at its loss. Shakespeare might have seen it as a tendency toward predestination.

These are influences undeterred by openness.

In his zeal for a new, more open society, Moynihan should broaden his quest to include secrets closer to home, more in the control of the populous. Have him legislate against the secret deals of fiscal and intellectual cronyism that have destroyed our schools and rendered our state and local governments ineffective. Have him argue against the self-interested altogether. Only then will the community truly have a hand in its own future.

James Asher is city editor at The Sun and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for more than 25 years.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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