“A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being a secret.”
—Henry Taylor

I was reading his new book when Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced that he would not seek a fourth Senate term in 2000. A university professor who served in every administration from that of John Kennedy to Gerald Ford, and as ambassador to India and the United Nations before being elected to the United States Senate from New York, Moynihan certainly possesses the qualifications to write a book on the history of American state secrets. Instead, he offers a short polemic (his part of the text runs only 168 pages) that wanders all over the map, not just topically but also in point of view.

The inspiration for the book is Moynihan’s former service on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and his work as bipartisan co-chair of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy; its focus is the classification of secrets during the Cold War. Richard Gid Powers, author of Not Without Honor: The History of Anti-Communism in America and several books on the FBI, stresses in his lengthy introduction (59 pages) that Moynihan is an “anti-communist liberal.” What Powers means is that, while Moynihan deplored Soviet totalitarianism and denounced it in the strongest terms (especially during his tenure at the United Nations), as a liberal he was uncomfortable doing anything more than talking about it. This ambivalent attitude toward the Soviet menace is most evident in the two main lines of argument that Moynihan advances on behalf of his theme that secrecy, by limiting debate over policy to a small number of “cleared” insiders, has caused “some of our greatest political blunders.”

In 1995, Moynihan was instrumental in releasing the Verona intercepts: messages sent by the KGB to its American agents in the 1940’s and decoded by the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service in 1946. They confirmed that the KGB operated an elaborate espionage ring that included Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and other government officials and nuclear scientists. These cables were never shown to President Truman (whose administration was accused of being “soft” on Soviet “fellow travelers” within its precincts), let alone made public; the Army did not wish that its ability to break Soviet codes be known. Moynihan dismisses this justification of secrecy by claiming that the British traitor Kim Philby had already told Moscow that the United States was reading its mail. It is not clear, however, that Philby knew the details of the Army’s operation, or that the Army was aware that its counterespionage effort had been compromised (if true).

Moynihan’s first point—that, under guise of security, various bureaucracies horde information and fail to act on what they know (or to allow others to act)—is well taken (though it should be noted that Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and other spies were discovered and convicted without the Verona information). However, his second one—that the information should have been made public—is presented in somewhat naive fashion. Moynihan believes that the Verona cables would have turned the left toward anticommunism while undermining the right’s claim to be the only source of patriotic sentiment. “If only the political liberals had known. If only those in the universities had known,” he wails.

Known what? That the Soviets were trying to subvert the United States, along with the rest of the West? That the Communist Party USA was a tool of the U.S.S.R.? That those who were “duped” into taking a pro-Soviet line against the policies of the United States were helping the expansion of a hostile power? Can anyone really believe that it was only the failure to release a particular set of transcripts that kept people in the dark about these things? A few more government files would have been dismissed just as hotly as were the mountains of other evidence presented over the years. The left has never cared whom they were in league with against the evil American empire. Even after the Berlin Wall fell, a prominent leftist like Daniel Singer could write in the Nation that “the Soviet Union was the only check on the Pax Americana, the only external obstacle to U.S. imperialism . . . it is this chapter of Soviet resistance that is now coming rapidly to an end.” Jeane J. Kirkpatrick had it right when she said that the collapse of Soviet communism

as an alternative focus of loyalty, may eventually have an effect on the relationship of the American Left with the United States, but I doubt it. I believe the Left’s attitudes toward America have influenced its attitudes towards Communism rather than the reverse. . . . I believe one of the distinctive attributes of the American Left is a broad, though not universal, alienation from the dominant American society and culture.

During the Vietnam War, leftists burned the American flag, raised the Viet Cong one in its place, and decorated their rooms with posters of Lenin and Mao. This open embrace of the enemy’s cause led to a major breach of secrecy: the release of the Pentagon Papers. A dissident Defense Department employee, Daniel Ellsburg, gave a copy of what was to be an in-house history of the war to reporter Neil Sheehan, whose own radical views led him to advocate that American leaders be tried as war criminals. Did this sudden availability of information improve the quality of discussion? Just the opposite, in fact. Wild claims were made regarding what the massive collection of documents actually contained, with excerpts and contingency plans taken out of context to “prove” a conspiracy to wage an “aggressive” war on a “wider” scale. The abridged version ran 677 pages; the full study, to six volumes. Few people have ever bothered to read it, beyond those seeking to mine passages to support their preconceived opinions. As Richard Gid Powers notes, “Almost none of the minds changed by the Pentagon Papers ever came into contact with the words that supposedly constituted the proof of the conspiracy. Amazing.”

Thus, Moynihan’s argument that reducing secrecy will lessen the role of demagogues is not well supported even by his own examples. But the senator has another line of argument: that subjecting the data and analysis of government to the scrutiny of private specialists will improve their quality and prevent policymakers from basing decisions on erroneous assumptions. Again, there is much merit in this argument, at least in the abstract, and so a tendency has arisen to refer government studies to outside “Team B” criticisms. Once more, however, the central example that Moynihan uses demonstrates the extent to which his liberal ideology has clouded his mind. He subjects the CIA to heavy fire for overestimating Soviet capabilities during the Cold War, in particular by portraying the economy of the Soviet Union as stronger than in fact it turned out to be. Moynihan places great emphasis on a 1957 study predicting that rapid growth would move the Soviet economy from one-third to one-half the size of the American GNP by 1980. After that, according to the report, Soviet growth, while slowing, would still reach parity with the United States by 1998. Of course, this didn’t happen. In the 1980’s, Soviet growth didn’t just slow, it ended. (By the time of its collapse, the economy of the U.S.S.R. again amounted to about one-third that of the United States.)

Yet this failure of analysis can hardly be attributed to secrecy on the part of the American government. Economic overestimates were common in academic circles too, especially among those on the left who were keen to demonstrate the superior growth potential of central economic planning. Straight-line projections have been common in other contexts, most recently in the unforeseen collapse of the Pacific Rim economies on which far more data was available than was the case with the Soviet Union. Hordes of analysts with billions in investments at stake pored over this information in detail—yet the consensus view predicting continued robust growth held up until the collapse was well under way. Faddish claims, popular in corporate circles, that China will have the world’s largest economy by 2020 will probably also prove wrong.

Moynihan’s concern, finally, is less with faulty economic analysis than it is with what he regards as the excessive military spending which flowed from it. Noting that American tourists had discovered how poor the U.S.S.R.—where food, clothes, and housing were in short supply—really was, he characterizes the prevalent assumption as being that, while Moscow was certainly capable of causing us trouble, “it was trouble we could handle.” No need to panic, and certainly no need to run up huge budget deficits to finance President Reagan’s military buildup. We only needed to sit back and wait for the Soviet Union to collapse beneath its own weight, which Moynihan asserts was George Kennan’s message in his famous “containment” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947.

The problems with this view, unfortunately, are legion. That it was hard to find meat in Leningrad didn’t mean there weren’t 13,500 Soviet tanks supported by 5,600 tactical aircraft in service in 1985, the peak year of the Reagan defense budget. Indeed, it was the priority given to military expansion in the U.S.S.R. which precluded the provision of consumer goods. The Soviets, though aware of their inferior economic position, were still determined to attain military superiority. In 1928, Soviet military theorist M.N. Tukhachevsky laid the intellectual foundation for aggressive war as a means to redress the underlying economic imbalance between the U.S.S.R. and the West when he wrote, “The occupation of new territory—an expansion of the military-economic base—may bring about a change in relative strengths.” The building of a first-strike nuclear capability and the reinforcement of forward-deployed Red Army units in East Germany, poised to drive into Europe’s industrial center with minimal warning, were confirmations that this view was still dominant a half-century later. Of course, the United States had faced a similar danger before. The Japanese strategists who planned the Pearl Harbor attack were aware that their economy had only one-tenth the war potential of the American one. Nevertheless, by concentrating their resources on the military, they had attained regional superiority and sought to convert that advantage into geopolitical gains by a preemptive strike against an unprepared America.

The Reagan strategy’, based on Soviet weakness rather than Soviet strength, was not developed from a false assumption. A Defense Department assessment put Soviet computer technology ten years behind that of the United States. By exploiting America’s high-tech advantage across the military spectrum, from precision-guided munitions to antimissile defense, the United States could dash any Soviet hope for military success, enforce the policy of containment, and bring the internal contradictions of the Soviet system to a boil. All this was far more in keeping with Kennan’s actual strategy than it is with Moynihan’s interpretation of it. It was because the Soviet Union was “by far the weaker party” that Kennan advised the United States “to increase enormously the strains under which the Soviet policy must operate” by “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force.”

Moynihan complains that, while “The missile gap turned out not to exist, [nevertheless] nearly four decades later the United States is still contemplating modes of missile defense.” Yet the missile gap was real when Reagan initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative, and even without a “gap” the fact that hostile powers can obliterate large parts of America is cause enough to develop defenses against such attacks. The mere fact that several of the countries developing nuclear-armed missiles have economies a fraction of the size of ours does not of itself preclude our taking defensive measures. As the Rumsfeld Commission recently” concluded,

Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies.

Interestingly enough, the Rumsfeld Commission was an “outside” group of experts chartered by Congress to do the very kind of independent examination of official policy that Moynihan’s case for reduced secrecy is meant to foster. The commission’s finding that “The threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community” could have come from Moynihan’s own book, had the senator been of a mind to cite this kind of example. That he wasn’t—for the reason that his political agenda would not have been advanced thereby—tells us, in truth, more about the nature of liberalism than about the dangers of secrecy.


[Secrecy: The American Experience, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (New Haven: Yale University Press) 262 pp., $22.50]