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Ever since the nation's most important secret meeting - the Constitutional Convention - presidents have struggled to balance open, accountable government with necessary secrecy in military affairs and negotiations. For the first 120 years, a culture of open government persisted, but new threats and technology have long since shattered the old bargains. Today, presidents neither protect vital information nor provide the open debate Americans expect.
Mary Graham tracks the rise in governmental secrecy that began with surveillance and loyalty programs during Woodrow Wilson's administration, explores how it developed during the Cold War, and analyzes efforts to reform the secrecy apparatus and restore oversight in the 1970s. Chronicling the expansion of presidential secrecy in the Bush years, Graham explains what presidents and the American people can learn from earlier crises, why the attempts of Congress to rein in stealth activities don't work, and why presidents cannot hide actions that affect citizens' rights and values.
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By Philo on 07-04-17
Helpful; covers a lot of ground pretty well
This topic is massive, detail-laden, and troubling. It touches on the best and the worst of how our system works in practice. I like the basic approach taken here: the trade-offs of secrecy are dealt with from the very start (Washington's administration), through a series of pivotal US history scenes. There is enough historical color alongside the facts to keep it interesting and flowing well. The author mostly chooses to let the stories tell the story, i.e., does not layer on some big abstract economics theories (which might have been interesting, as in, interplay with game theory, agency problems, and information asymmetry). The approach is pretty common-sense, with, on one side, the pull of democratic public demands to know important facts, set against leaders' rationales to conceal them. As the story moves into the 20th century, the secrecy scales up dramatically with Woodrow Wilson and later, late WW2 through today, with such events as arrival of atomic weapons, and the Cold War, leading to vast secret bureaucracies and covert actions (while presidents' attitudes and oversight varied, as did Congress's). I like the book best from Truman through George W. Bush. As we pivot to Obama, and into post-Obama, the explanation is reasonable, but I still had a lot of unanswered questions. Obama's earnestness and deliberative legalistic nature and concern don't, in my mind, afford him the relative pass he gets here. But none of this is simple. This book gamely takes on a big swath of material and handles it deftly, carefully, and without shrillness. It still asks the challenging questions of all the presidents' choices. I feel better grounded in this whole topic.