Obviously some degree of military secrecy is necessary, but it’s clearly much less than the degree we’ve now got. Instead a lot of stuff seems to be kept classified merely because it’s convenient to stamp everything that way, or else because sparing the citizens the gory details of war is better for home front morale. Or something.I would agree that some degree of secrecy is necessary as well. However, government secrecy works to undermine democracy in numerous ways and we all know how well our government's need to keep secrets turned out in Latin America during the Cold War.
Here's Kate Doyle from the National Security Archives recently writing about her experience providing expert witness testimony in the case of the disappearance of Edgar Fernando Garcia in Guatemala in 1984. He disappeared while the US was providing political cover to the Guatemalan Government. However, to no one's surprise, declassified State Department and Embassy cables written at the time that we were defending the Guatemalan government against scandalous lies speak more openly about what its government was actually doing.
They describe a planned campaign on the part of the Guatemalan government to kidnap and kill trade union activists and student leaders linked to the opposition. In a secret analysis written on February 23, 1984, for example, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research reported a “new wave of violence” launched by military and police under head of state General Oscar Mejía Víctores, targeting a broad swath of Guatemala’s legal and clandestine opposition. “Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation,” wrote U.S. officials, pointing in particular to the army’s “notorious presidential intelligence service (archivos)” and the National Police, “who have traditionally considered labor activists to be communists.” This and other U.S. documents provide context for Fernando García’s kidnapping as well as describe a pattern and practice on the part of Guatemalan security forces to use forced disappearance in their war against their political opponents.Two soldiers were recently found guilty for abducting Garcia. I'm sorry, but I'd prefer that we err on the side of disclosure.
A related argument to the case is that bureaucrats might simply classify material simply because that's what bureaucrats do (See Bernstein). They're not necessarily trying to hide anything. Fortunately, in the Guatemalan case, military bureaucrats also did what bureaucrats do - they kept meticulous notes that documented their surveillance of the victim and his and associates ultimate disappearance. These documents were invaluable to bringing about a conviction.
Another issue that I come across and sometimes think about myself is that secrecy was vital during the Cold War. When things return to "normal," we won't have as much government secrecy. I haven't convinced myself of that yet.
As Boz mentioned earlier in the week, the CIA was involved in the shooting down of a civilian plane in Peru in 2001 that killed a US missionary and her daughter.
Instead of admitting that a mistake had been made, the officers tried to cover up their actions by, among other things, lying to congress. While too little too late, the CIA handed out administrative punishments to 16 retired and current officers for their role in the killings.
In the end, the US government fought the Cold War in our name. It has been fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in our names. And it has been fighting the drug war in our name. Civilians, including Americans, have died, sometimes at our hands. The American people are entitled to the truth behind our government's activities no matter how embarrassing. That's how democracy works.