Dictatorships are very secretive because they want to retain as much decision-making power as they can without interference from the people at large. Under authoritarian governments, the press is tightly controlled. Information, often seriously misleading, is doled out sparingly. The population is meant to remain in the dark about the government's actions.
Government secrecy is meant to circumvent popular control. It thereby serves to weaken democracy and to make democratic institutions ineffective.
Governments have many reasons for secrecy. If ministers or high-ranking generals are involved in corrupt practices, in transferring government funds to their private accounts, they clearly do not want this publicized. If governments act illegally, or if their actions are known to be widely unpopular, they will try to keep them secret. Governments expand the range of policy options for themselves when they conceal their actions. What citizens do not know, they cannot criticize or oppose. Governments don't risk public censure as long as their actions remain unknown.
How secretive government is, in the US, emerges from time to time when one little secret leaks out. The newspaper divulged recently that in the early 2000s the CIA sent a number of men, suspected of planning terrorist acts, to a Polish prison where they were interrogated and tortured. On the same day the newspapers mentioned a secret area at Guantánamo Bay, called “Camp 7”, that had previously been concealed from the general public.
Inmates of the Guantanamo complex have been on hunger strikes for a long time but the press does not cover that, in order to deprive the public of understanding of Guantanamo, and in order to deprive those hunger strikes of influence on public opinion.
And then, of course, there is the NSA scandal and the disclosure of massive government surveillance of US citizens.
Our government does not want it to be known that they practice torture. They want to conceal that treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay is as harsh and illegal as the treatment of prisoners by other countries, whom we publicly chastise for human rights violations. They most definitely did not want us to know that they keep track of all our telephone calls, and keep mountains of other information about each of us.
But we brag a lot about our democracy and admonish other countries to follow our shining example. Only yesterday, Vice-President Biden, visiting in Beijing, publicly criticized the President of China for restricting the activities of US journalists over there. You would think that our government would be much more restrained in keeping secrets than they actually are. But the reality is that there are some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counter terrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
From time to time the top dogs in that vast and secretive bureaucracy come before the public with stories that these hidden efforts have rendered our country much safer in a very dangerous world. Support for this story is, unfortunately, classified so we just have to take their word for it.
The truth is that our government is steadily undermining our democracy. Citizens uninformed about large areas of government activity cannot influence government policy. Instead of active independent citizens, we are a manipulated mass of followers. Our government holds us, its citizens, in contempt when it conceals its actions from us. It believes that it knows better than we do what they should be doing.
When the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, or traveling Senators and Congresspersons admonish foreign countries about their undemocratic practices, they are really trying to persuade us, the folks back home, that we live in a democracy when in fact popular control of government is seriously limited by obsessive government secrecy.
Right on, Vice-President Biden. tell the Chinese that it should not impede the free flow of information. Then come home to Washington and give the same message to our government at home!