Book Review: Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare


By Jason Worth

Openness and transparency of information pertinent to the affairs of state are the bedrocks upon which democracies operate. With it, citizens can remain informed and knowledgeable about important developments impacting their society which, in turn, leads to policy discussions and debates among members of the legislature and the citizenry at large. These actions then provide guidance for the executive branch of government to chart a course of action for the nation, in unison with the wishes of the people and their legislature. This is how democratic nations are supposed to operate. When the flow of relevant and important information to the citizenry gets cut off, democracy cannot effectively operate. This is the situation in which we increasingly find ourselves in the United States today.

Scott Horton, in Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare, looks at this issue from multiple angles, discusses where we went wrong, and considers how the lack of openness and transparency is causing our nation’s course of action to be determined by a select few at the top of intelligence and national security pyramids. The “lords of secrecy,” therefore, are the nation’s security elite, consisting of figures privy to highly classified information and who occupy key decision- and policy-making positions in agencies charged with the nation’s defense, such as the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the NSA.

To remind us how a properly functioning democracy should operate, Horton takes us on a quick tour of Athens during its golden age in the fifth century BCE. Athenian citizens, participating in their knowledge-based democracy, took a very active role in understanding and debating important factors affecting their society; and their participation very much helped its leaders to craft national policy. This included questions of when and how to go to war, what alliances should be struck, and even who should be given command over armies and fleets. The citizens also rigorously examined the performance of their leaders in times of conflict and demanded accountability for errors in judgement and the betrayal of principles, even from military leaders who were successful in battle. To illustrate how far we’ve strayed from the Athenian ideal, Horton observes that were an Athenian from the classical era to be teleported to the United States today, he would have a difficult time identifying this as a true democracy. Yes, he would see some institutions associated with democracy, but what is critically lacking and what the Athenian would notice quickly is the citizenry’s lack of direct engagement with affairs of state.

How did we get this way? Our nation’s founding fathers were very concerned with designing and implementing various checks and balances to ensure that no one person or branch of government became too powerful. For the nation to go to war, it was necessary for the executive branch to receive authorization from the legislative branch. In turn, the legislative branch would be guided by the will of people, since the citizenry collectively places them into office every few years and (in theory) provides them input while they are in office. For a large portion of our nation’s history, this model worked pretty well and as envisioned by the founding fathers.

But, secrecy began to materially creep into our political system around World War II. Secrecy is necessary during times of war. No nation wants to telegraph their battle plans or war strategy to adversaries in the midst of a conflict. (But that is a “tactical” matter, and shouldn’t be confused with the citizenry’s need to be informed and involved in the” strategic” matters such as whether the nation should go to war in the first place and with what nations it should ally.) In a properly functioning democracy, that heightened cloak of secrecy would normally be lifted upon the war’s end.

But in World War II, the USA developed the fearsome atomic and hydrogen bombs. Their development was, understandably and justifiably, shrouded in secrecy. But once the war was over, it was decided to continue to keep secret all matters pertaining to these weapons. This helped to condition the public that the government had the right to hold certain information from them. The staff, oversight, special means and need for security surrounding these new lethal weapons also gave birth to the current national security state.

Another important impetus for post-war secrecy was the signing into law of the National Security Act of 1947. The act legitimated the burgeoning state of national security secrecy and, among other things, created the Central Intelligence Agency. But, even at the time President Truman signed this act into law, the concept of checks and balances was still alive and well, and it was envisioned that the CIA would have a more limited role than it has developed since. In fact, Truman later insisted that his intention in introducing and signing the act had simply been to provide a central point for information gathering and analysis that could serve other agencies (such as the newly formed Defense Department and National Security Council), not to promote espionage, or as he put it, “strange activities.” But, the act did authorize the CIA to engage in “covert action” (defined as “an activity….to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”) And the CIA has secretly grown its capabilities since then such that today, overseeing a fleet of armed drone aircraft, supervising paramilitary mercenaries and utilizing proxy military forces, it rivals the capabilities of our established branches of the Department of Defense.

Despite the onset of secrecy stemming from the Manhattan Project and formalized creation of the national security state via the National Security Act of 1947, the forces of openness still prevailed over the forces of secrecy up through the years of the Vietnam War and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. For example, the conscription of young American soldiers into the war effort in Vietnam very much made the citizenry an active participant in the war. Mass demonstrations and protests from the anti-war coalition followed, and flag-waving supporters of our effort to contain Communism stood in opposition. This is the type of citizen participation you can expect from a properly functioning knowledge-based democracy.

However, the protests for and against the war came after the decision had been made by the lords of secrecy to engage in the Vietnam conflict. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and senior figures within the CIA and military intelligence community were pressing a war agenda. They viewed the democratic process an obstacle, and they had the ear of President Johnson. The closest thing that the American people had to a “go to war” decision came with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the resolution that followed. Congress did grant President Johnson permission to proceed, precipitated by the military interchange between US and North Vietnamese naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. But documents declassified in 2005 now show that the case put to Congress and the American public had materially misrepresented the facts, falsely claiming that a second North Vietnamese attack had occurred on August 4, 1964. The takeaway here is that secrecy (as well as deception, apparently) played a role in our engagement in that war because the “lords of secrecy” were agitating to engage in the conflict and ultimately took us there; and this secrecy was at the expense of our democracy making an informed “go to war” decision as it rightfully should have. But, the democratic process still held to some extent insofar as the executive branch sought approval from the legislative branch before commencing. In the years to come after Vietnam, we’ll see that this formality is increasingly being done away with.

Fast forward a couple decades and we see again that the democratic process stood up well in the case of the First Iraq War. There was friction between the executive and legislative branches. Congressional leaders challenged Bush Senior’s war plans, and insisted that military actions could not proceed without authorization from Congress. Despite Dick Cheney’s assertion (then Secretary of Defense) that the president did not need legislative approval to proceed, Bush Senior sought and received Congressional authorization to invade.

A similar scenario unfolded during the Second Gulf War. Because he was surrounded by many of the same advisors as were advising his father in the First Gulf War, George W. Bush not surprisingly received the same advice that the executive branch did not need legislative approval to invade. But Bush Junior sought and received Congressional approval anyways, after extended Congressional debates and large street demonstrations by the public. Again, democracy held, but the constant refrain that the president did not need Congressional approval foreshadowed a weakening in our democratic structure. It also led the way in which we went to war in Libya and Syria.

Unlike prior military conflicts, our entry into the Libya conflict in 2011 was very different. The decision to commit American forces was taken suddenly and engendered relatively modest public discussion. President Obama made no televised speech to the nation from the Oval Office which departed from a long-standing custom of modern presidents whenever American service personnel were sent into conflict (or even just when air strikes were launched.) The House of Representatives did hold hearings on the Libyan operations, but no legislation or resolution was voted either approving or disapproving the president’s decision. And all of this happened without much concern or notice from the citizenry. And, after pressing the issue through several conflicts, those voices who said the president did not need legislative approval to initiate actions such as these finally prevailed. And the Department of Justice backed them by providing an opinion to the president that the Libyan operations were neither a “war” as the framers of the Constitution meant it nor “hostilities” as Congress would define it.

How have we progressed as a nation to this point? There are several reasons.

  • By doing away with the draft and moving to an all-volunteer army, especially one that is made up from the less-advantaged segments of our society, the citizenry has fewer of its children and family members in harm’s way. Therefore, fewer citizens (especially the wealthy and well-connected) will be directly impacted by the loss of life from soldiers and sailors making the ultimate sacrifice overseas.
  • The use of military contractors also serves to limit the perceived need for the citizenry’s involvement in these matters. Washington’s logic, which hasn’t been sufficiently challenged by the citizenry, is that it is one thing when a U.S. uniformed service person is put in harm’s way and dies versus that of a paid mercenary. In other words, the death of a paid mercenary is not the same as the death of a citizen soldier, and the citizenry need not be consulted when mercenaries are deployed. The ratio of military contractors to uniformed personnel has ballooned from 1-in-60 during the Vietnam War to 1-in-5 during the Balkans conflict in the late 1990s. During the Second Iraq War this figure reached parity (1-to-1) and late into the war in Afghanistan, the numbers of contractors exceeded the numbers of uniformed U.S. service personnel. (And these contractors are a big business. In 2000, the Pentagon spent roughly $133.2 billion on contactors. This has grown nearly threefold to $391.9 billion by 2008.)
  • Whereas civilians had to sacrifice in prior wars, through food and materials rationing and investing in war bonds, that is no longer the case. The federal government funds wars from its never ending supply of Federal Reserve Bank-provided dollars, making any economic sacrifices by the citizenry no longer necessary (unless you’re astute enough to understand the insidious and slow-moving impact of inflation.)
  • In order to achieve its military objectives, especially in limited engagements, the United States has been increasingly opting for “zero casualty” strikes (such as cruise missile strikes and airplane sorties) which inherently entail little to no risk to the lives of U.S. service personnel. This was particularly evident in the Libya incursion of 2011 and Syria of 2012-2014. The executive branch has increasingly taken the position that if there is minimal risk of service personnel deaths (combined with more legalistic considerations that these forays are not “wars” or “hostilities” in the traditional uses of those terms), then the citizenry has less reason to have input into the decision-making process regarding these engagements.

Taking that last bullet point into consideration, and considering that artificial intelligence and technological developments are enabling new autonomous machines to take the field of battle (from flying drones and self-guiding bombers to machine gun-wielding tracked vehicles), you can see the potential that our national leaders may no longer feel the need to consult its citizens or Congress regarding future engagements as robot armies are deployed. In fact, we’ve seen this play out recently in which the CIA, a non-military agency no less, is conducting drone strikes and drone assassinations on targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These particular strikes have been done in secrecy, with the U.S. government denying their existence and cooperating foreign intelligence agencies urged to keep the CIA’s involvement undisclosed. (However, the citizens of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are widely aware of the CIA’s involvement here, and they have a better understanding of the CIA’s actions in this regard than the citizens of the United States have.) Over a decade, it is estimated that the CIA has launched more than 300 drone strikes in these three countries, leading to perhaps 4,000 casualties.

Let’s again consider the issue of secrecy and classified information within this context, and another reason national security elites justify undertaking military actions without the express consent of Congress and the people is that the Congress and the people are not privy to the classified information which forms the basis for their decisions. Disclosing that information in order to reach war consensus would not only disclose state secrets, they argue, but would serve to limit their options. More and more often, national security elites are pressing the president to quickly take action without securing the appropriate resolutions and authorizations on the basis that emergency requires quick action. And, by bypassing the legislature, they are sidestepping the need to give prognoses and cost estimates related to the actions they advocate. This often places Congress in the untenable position of having to defund a military operation already underway if it wishes to show its opposition to it.

In addition to depriving the public of necessary information for the citizenry to make informed decisions, secrecy also robs them of being able to hold their national security and intelligence agency workers accountable. In the closed loop world of classified intelligence, data comes into the national security network (which the public does not know about), is formulated into policy and actions (which the public often does not know about) and is put into practice (to which the public is not often privy.) If poor decisions are made, or if good decisions are not properly executed, the public will likely never know. And knowing that the public is not looking over their shoulder, much less holding them accountable, has enabled some terrible abuses of power in recent years, including the covering up of blatantly criminal conduct. These include:

  • The case of Khalid el Masri, a German greengrocer, who the CIA confused for an al Qaeda terrorist with a similar name. The CIA abducted el Masri and rendered him to Macedonia where he was beaten, sodomized and drugged by his captors. Even after some CIA agents indicated they thought they had the wrong man, el Masri was retained. Even after the German government confirmed his passport was authentic, and therefore he was not the terrorist initially suspected, he was retained. Even though a court later found that what the CIA had done was criminal conduct, the CIA closed ranks and decided no disciplinary action was appropriate. When the Washington Post was prepared to disclose the identity and role of one of the CIA team leaders responsible for el Masri’s detention long after he was proven to be innocent, the CIA changed that team leader’s status to “covert operative” and ordered the Washington Post not to publish the name.
  • Two CIA officers, named Matt and Paul, were directly linked to the brutal death of a prisoner in Afghanistan, and another CIA officer named Steve was involved in the death of a prisoner in Iraq. Matt went on to become the head of the CIA’s Near East division, while Paul, the Afghanistan station chief for the CIA, was given responsibility for sensitive assignments in Pakistan. Steve received a reprimand, retired, and then returned to work for the CIA as a contractor, presumably for significantly more pay.
  • Pacha Wazir, an Afghan financier who ran an informal money-changing and transfer business, was considered by US intelligence sources to be Bin Laden’s money man. He was not. And, having learned of the accusations against him, Wazir travelled to Dubai in order to meet with FBI agents and set the record straight. Instead, he was kidnapped, taken to a detention facility in Morocco (run by the Moroccans for the CIA) and later transferred to the CIA’s Salt Pit prison north of Kabul. Despite the fact that two successive case agents told their supervisors that a mistake had been made and Wazir was not the man they thought he was, their reports and recommendations were ignored. American intelligence officials similarly resisted appeal by the Afghan government, ultimately including a 2008 order by Afghan president Hamid Karzai directing his release. Not until February 2010, after eight years of American captivity, was Pacha Wazir finally set free and sent home. Despite the fact that Wazir’s fate had become public knowledge after his release, the CIA attempted to keep this story concealed. A CIA case officer assigned to cover Wazir, Glenn Carle, who wrote a book which included the matter was instructed not to identify Pacha Wazir or divulge any clues that would disclose the facts of his detention in Morocco or at the Salt Pit. And then, for good measure, CIA censors struck and redacted approximately 40 percent of the book in their review process, for no apparent reason other than to effectively rendering the book unpublishable.

These are only a few of countless examples of our nation’s national security establishment’s use of secrecy to withhold information from the public and then, when necessary, use secrecy and intimidation again to cover up for misdeeds and crimes.

The CIA has even spied upon and meddled with the actions of the entities tasked with overseeing its activities, namely the Senate Intelligence Committee. When Senator Diane Feinstein led an effort in March 2014 as head of that committee (which had begun under her predecessor on the committee, Jay Rockefeller) to investigate the CIA’s use of torture and waterboarding and subsequent destruction of video-taped evidence, the agency stymied and stalled her investigation. But Senator Feinstein learned that the CIA had significantly misrepresented to the committee years earlier the conditions of confinement at CIA detention facilities. Fearful that public knowledge of the CIA’s network of black sites and torture practices would lead to a press for criminal prosecutions under various statutes, the CIA undertook a series of actions decided to stall the committee’s investigation after it gained assurances from the Department of Justice which protected involved agents from prosecution. The stalling tactics included requiring committee members to review relevant documents only on stand-alone computers within the CIA’s headquarters and preventing them from taking copies back to their offices. They also flooded the committee with 6.2 million pages of documents (with no table of contents or organization) intended to overwhelm their review process. They also removed documents from these computers after initially posting them, and when caught in the act undertook a series of lies that ranged from not having removed the documents, to shifting responsibility to the personnel servicing the computers, to ultimately claiming that the White House ordered their removal (when no such thing had occurred and the White House denied it.)

Our national security apparatus has become brazen with its power. And it gets its confidence from the knowledge that as vast quantities of information are classified, few individuals can look over its shoulder. They are increasingly becoming accountable to no one but their own internal hierarchies, which close ranks at the first signs of trouble to protect the fold. And, as classified information grows in size, so too can we expect their brazenness. Despite efforts during President Clinton’s administration to reign in classification, including Executive Order 12958 which tightened national security classifications while liberalizing declassifications, the rate of document classifications actually accelerated in the years following that order (1996). And they’ve only surged further after the terror strikes of 9/11. The government classified 11.3 million documents in 2002, 14.2 million in 2003 and 15.6 million in 2004. And, these classifications are happening despite the fact that government officials responsible for such things have consistently acknowledged that most classified materials should not in fact be classified. Another statistic which highlights the enormity of this problem is the fact that the production and maintenance of this mass of classified documents cost the federal government $11.63 billion (that’s with a “B”) in 2013, according to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Information Security Oversight Office. (Incidentally, 854,000 Americans hold Top Secret security clearances, and 5.1 million Americans have Secret clearances.)

How will we find a way out of this dilemma? As hopeful as we might be that additional whistleblowers will shed light on what is being hidden, like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, I don’t recommend you hold your breath. The federal whistleblower legislation offers so little protection to whistleblowers that it has become irrelevant. And the federal government has effectively gone to war against whistleblowers to keep them silent. The Department of Justice is the most egregious abuser of the federal whistleblower legislation, using it to suppress rather than protect whistleblowers. And under the Obama administration, utilizing the Espionage Act of 1917, the Department of Justice has brought 8 espionage prosecutions, which is nearly 3 times more than the number brought by all prior presidents combined from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. And it appears things will only likely get worse in this regard, since a directive issued by National Intelligence Director James Clapper on March 20, 2014, threatens criminal prosecution for employees of the intelligence community the instant they come into “contact with the media about intelligence-related information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities, and judgements.” The prohibition extends even to information that is unclassified. Under the new order even the most casual encounter between employees of the intelligence community and journalists may be viewed as a security violation and may be referred to the Justice Department for investigation and criminal prosecution. Yikes!!

Most books like this end with helpful suggestions and prescriptions for action that can be undertaken to reverse the negative slide. You know, the smile received after you’ve just been given bad news. Worrisomely, Scott Horton’s epilogue didn’t start out this way. In fact, the epilogue makes clear that the brazenness of the lords of secrecy is not limited to the shores of the United States. Apparently Germany, who has been kind enough to allow our intelligence agencies nearly unfettered access to conduct operations in their country, made a simple request that US intelligence activities on German soil be conducted in a manner consistent with German law. Our government’s response? They rebuffed the request as infeasible. And it’s now well known, because of Edward Snowden, that our lords of secrecy were eavesdropping on the private communications of the German and Brazilian governments, along with the United Nations, among others. And the malfeasance of our intelligence and national security agencies are beginning to cause an economic burden on U.S. corporations, as allies are increasingly turning away from American telecommunications firms, Internet service providers and defense contractors who collaborate with the American intelligence community.

But, halfway through the epilogue, Horton did ultimately end with that “smile.” Horton’s prescriptions are that:

  • Legislative overseers must vigorously challenge and investigate these agencies. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the CIA after allegations of torture abuse is a good model.
  • Courts must enable individuals and public advocacy groups to test and challenge claims of secrecy.
  • Journalists and scholars need to continue to monitor and publish on national security matters in order to keep the public well informed of national security developments.
  • Conscientious whistleblowers must continue to find the courage to step forward and educate the public on nation state abuses, at considerable expense to themselves, as this alone provides a meaningful safety break on dangerously overextended secrecy claims.
  • America’s allies must intervene, preferably collectively, to insist that domestic law be upheld in democratic states.
  • The country as a whole needs to be rigorous and skeptical when considering new military engagements abroad.

In the first months after the Snowden disclosures, nineteen bills were introduced to overhaul the NSA. In June 2013, Democrat John Conyers and Republican Justin Amash introduced a measure to defund the NSA’s mass surveillance program and mandate publication of the secret opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. When it appeared that the bill had enough support to pass, the White House panicked and launched an effort to defeat it. The director of the National Security Agency (General Alexander) was dispatched to Congress to harangue members for four hours with dire, and also factually unsubstantiated, claims that passage of the measure would have calamitous consequences for national security. The measure ultimately failed in a 205-217 vote, and it required a great deal of arm twisting to persuade enough members to vote against it. Campaign finance promises from the defense and intelligence industries undoubtedly played a large role in building opposition to the bill, as these firms do not want to see their contract cash spigots turned down. Despite the bill’s defeat, it represents a sign of optimism that the NSA and matters of national security are now much more closely scrutinized in our chief legislative body, and that the days of NSA appropriations spending bills being unquestionably approved without critical analysis are over.

We have a long way to go as a nation to reestablish a balance between the needs of our intelligence and national security apparatuses to keep our country safe, and the needs of the citizens to have access to information necessary to properly evaluate questions of national security. Keep reading your local newspaper for updates as this story continues. You’ll be able to see what happens next (…. unless the matters are classified.)

Other Reviews by Jason Worth

Book Review: The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age
Book Review: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era
Book Review: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future