Commentary Magazine

Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Secrecy: The American Experience
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Yak. 320 pp. $22.50

Between campus and caucus, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has combined a long career in politics and diplomacy with impressive intellectual accomplishments—eighteen books, countless articles, and truly original work in social science and public policy.

Secrecy in government, its use and abuse, is one subject about which Moynihan has thought deeply and has much to say. His new book is an engaging, sometimes rambling, often anecdotal work analyzing both the mechanics of secrecy—its rules, procedures, and personnel—and the effects of our government’s “culture of secrecy” on public discourse.

Moynihan treats secrecy as a form of regulation, though one that differs from the usual type in prescribing not “what the citizen may do” but “what the citizen may know.” He takes up questions posed by the system of security clearances, which determine who can gain access to what information, and examines the changing number of “classification authorities” in U.S. government—that is, officials who have the power to declare a document off-limits by marking it with a stamp or labeling it with a codeword. But his real aim is to show how the fear of espionage in World War I, the rise of American Communism in the 1930’s, the rigors of World War II, and in particular the development of atomic weapons set in motion forces that have transformed a “governmental system that valued openness over secrecy” into a “vast secrecy system that shows no sign of receding.”

Secrecy, according to Moynihan, has become “our characteristic mode of governance in the executive branch.” Though he acknowledges that a nation’s effort to protect itself must necessarily involve concealing things, his contention is that we have lost the necessary balance between secrecy and the right of the public to know. He traces this imbalance to the cold war, when, he writes, secrecy was routinized and bureaucratized to an unprecedented degree—so much so that it ironically ended up helping the American Left escape the unwelcome truth that there were Soviet spies and agents in departments of the U.S. government.

What Moynihan is referring to is the recently revealed fact that U.S. Army intelligence had broken coded Soviet messages, including the “Venona” cables, confirming the activities of alleged Soviet spies like the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss. But, he says, even President Truman was never told about this, let alone the American public. How, he laments, could our government have allowed us to tear each other apart in the 1950’s over such issues as the independence of the American Communist movement, or the innocence of Alger Hiss, when it knew all along, because it had decrypted the secret cables, that the Communist party was subordinated to Moscow, and Hiss was guilty?

Curiously, Moynihan, a former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, does not pause to wonder whether Washington might have had good reason to conceal its success in deciphering the Soviet codes. Although one would like to know what lies behind his thinking here, he never tells us. Nor do we learn anything more about his breathtaking revelation that even President Truman was kept in the dark about the decryptions. Can this be true? Or is there some metasecret of which Moynihan, too, remains ignorant?



Whatever the answers to these particular puzzles, Moynihan is surely right to deplore the excessive veil of secrecy that has been drawn over much intelligence information and research. He argues persuasively that this shields intelligence officers from much-needed debate and criticism, and allows errors of fact or judgment to go unchallenged. He knows well from his own experience—on the White House staff, in diplomatic posts at home and abroad, and in the United States Senate—how secrets can function as a source of power for the bureaucrats who possess them, and how, in consequence, they are often hoarded when they should be disseminated, or traded like currency when they should be freely shared.

Moynihan knows other things as well: that systems for the classification of secret material can be manipulated to prevent officials from performing their duties, and that secrecy carries costs—of which policy failure is only one—that are often underestimated. But there are also things he does not know, even if he is full of mischievous speculation about them.

One of these things is the nature and significance of the CIA’s colossal failure to arrive at an accurate assessment of Soviet power throughout much of the cold war. As Moynihan puts it, the “secrecy system . . . prevented American government from accurately assessing the enemy and then dealing rationally with them.” Or, in the words of the historian Richard Gid Powers in his lengthy and quite cloying introduction to this book:

[T]he most baleful consequences of the cold war—the fissure in American culture that developed during the McCarthy period and the fathomless debts accumulated during the arms build-up of the Reagan years—could have been avoided had it not been for the secrecy that concealed from the American people what the government knew and what it did not know.

In developing his case, Moynihan focuses in particular on the CIA’s inflated estimates of Soviet economic power—estimates which, he writes, adversely affected our policy and had damaging long-term consequences. “What if,” he asks in one wistful passage, “the United States had noticed Soviet weakness earlier on and accordingly kept its own budget in order, so that upon the break-up of the Soviet Union a momentous economic aid program could have commenced?”

There can be no doubt that the CIA seriously and consistently overestimated the size, rate of growth, and potential of the Soviet economy. In 1958, the agency took the view that Soviet gross domestic product (GDP) was growing much faster than ours, and would come within 50 percent of ours by 1962. This was ludicrous, as was the CIA estimate in 1990 that the Soviet GDP stood at $2.5 trillion. (Michael Boskin, then the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave the much lower estimate of $1.6 trillion.) As Moynihan rightly observes, any casual visitor to Moscow would have seen more than enough of the appalling circumstances in which most Soviet citizens lived to cast doubt on the plausibility of the CIA’s view.

The mistake of the CIA analysts was to rely on Soviet statistics. They were skeptical of those statistics, of course, but they refused or were unable to accept the magnitude of the lies being told, and so the adjustments they applied were woefully off. The clear implication of Moynihan’s argument, however, is that were it not for the culture of secrecy, such wild inaccuracies would never have gone unchallenged. The reality is otherwise.

With very few exceptions, the community of academic Soviet specialists and international economists agreed with the CIA analysts. (Moynihan fails to recall that his Harvard colleague John Kenneth Galbraith had confidently predicted the “convergence” of the U.S. and Soviet economies.) Those who disagreed with this view, and who have subsequently been proved right, were isolated within the intelligence/policy community and largely scorned in academic circles.



The economy was only one measure of Soviet power; the other was its military capability. Here, too, Moynihan suggests, the CIA made the USSR out to be more powerful than it was. But this is not so; if anything, the intelligence community made it out: to be less powerful than it was. Indeed, during George Bush’s tenure as director of the CIA, a group of independent outside experts—“Team B”—was assembled to examine the accuracy of CIA estimates in this area. The team concluded that the agency had significantly underestimated most elements of Soviet military power, including even such a key measure as the accuracy of Soviet nuclear missiles.1 Moynihan, who rightly complains that the culture of secrecy blocks competing and potentially corrective analysis, makes no mention of this landmark exception to the rule.

The combination of overestimating Soviet economic performance and underestimating Soviet military power produced a grossly distorted view of the staggering burden to which Soviet citizens were subjected by a succession of regimes plowing 30 to 35 percent of GDP into the military. (Official CIA estimates hovered between 9 and 12 percent.) This was the most serious intelligence failure of all, and it had profound consequences for the conduct of American policy. They are, however, exactly the opposite of the consequences Moynihan points to.

The failure to understand how thin the Soviets were stretched led directly to faulty judgments about arms control, a subject to which Moynihan attaches extravagant importance. There were those (including in the CIA) who pushed for generous terms for the Soviets in our negotiations with them on these matters; the reasoning was that, without arms-control treaties to hold them back, the Soviets would surge forward with massive new weapons programs in an effort to catch up with us. The opposite view was championed most vigorously by the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, joined by such “hard-liners” as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Pipes, Andrew Marshall, Henry Rowen, Albert Wohlstetter, and William Lee. They pressed for a tougher negotiating position, on the grounds that the Soviets were already spending, and developing and deploying weapons, at or very near the limit of their capacity, and should be given no help in pursuing their aggressive aims. The latter view was right.



Finally, Moynihan believes that a more accurate picture of just how weak the Soviet Union was might have dissuaded Ronald Reagan from spending so heavily on the American military and thus incurring those “fathomless debts” of which Richard Gid Powers speaks. This misses the essential point of the Reagan strategy.

Reagan understood exactly how weak the Soviets were, both economically and politically. But he also knew how massively they had invested in military power and, in this area alone, how much strength they still exhibited. He set about rebuilding America’s military forces not through reckless expenditures—it is absurd to attribute the debt accumulated in the Reagan years solely or even largely to military spending—but through a measured modernization of obsolete systems and by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative. Even former Soviet officials have confirmed that this program—together, crucially, with Reagan’s political challenge to the legitimacy of Soviet rule—was instrumental in ending the cold war with an American victory.

Reagan’s was a bold strategy, and quite different from the policy that had prevailed during much of the postwar period. It flowed from a far keener appreciation of the Soviet Union than the one the President got from his intelligence services—which, with all their secrets, counseled accommodation and détente. Moynihan, who knows a great deal, should know that, too.



1 See “Team B: The Reality Behind the Myth” by Richard Pipes, who served as chairman of the group (COMMENTARY, October 1986).


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