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State Secrecy and Democracy

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In the wake of controversial disclosures of classified government information by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, questions about the democratic status of secret uses of political power are rarely far from the headlines. Despite an increase in initiatives aimed at enhancing government transparency, such as freedom of information or sunshine laws, secrecy persists in both the foreign and domestic policy of democratic states, in the form of classified intelligence programs, espionage, secret military operations, diplomatic discretion, closed-door political bargaining, and bureaucratic opacity.

This book explores whether the state’s claim to restrict access to information can be justified. It answers this question with a qualified yes arguing that secrecy in exercising executive and legislative power can be seen as a legitimate exercise of democratic authority rather than as its justified suspension.

Past and recent examples of state secrecy such as the Manhattan Project, decision-making leading to the Iraq War, the extraordinary renditions programs and secret detention sites in Eastern Europe, collaboration between international secret services, and the Wiki-Leaks and Snowden disclosures are used throughout the book.

Table of contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

 

Chapter 2. The Political Imperative of Transparency: Its Grounds and Limits

Starting with a brief history of transparency as a moral, legal and political project, this chapter explores the presumption in favor of transparency prevailing in current public and scholarly debate. The focus is on the “people’s right to know”, the appeal to which underlined the movement that led to the adoption of freedom of information legislation. The chapter argues that the “people’s right to know” and the presumption in favor of transparency have less strong grounds than common wisdom has it.

Chapter 3. Reclaiming raison d’etat: The necessity-based defense of state secrecy

If the political imperative of transparency is less categorical than assumed, does this mean that secrecy in governance is legitimate? If so, when? This chapter explores the dominant justification of state secrecy that presents secrecy as a necessary measure called for in exceptional circumstances in which basic interests of the state are at stake (national security, institutional integrity, stability, developmental perspectives). On this view, insofar as secrecy serves the goal of the survival of a democratic state, its otherwise undemocratic character is offset. I argue that this necessity-based argument, adopts the logic of the raison d’etat tradition and fails, as a democratic defense of state secrecy, for the same reason that raison d’etat politics is considered antithetical to democracy.

 

Chapter 4. Do States Have a Right to Privacy?

One of the rare defenses of the state’s claim to withhold information from citizens that goes beyond the appeals to necessity refers to the value of privacy. According to this, states just like individuals, have a right to privacy that protects their capacity for autonomous action viz. their capacity to formulate and act on their organizational goals. It is their rights to privacy that makes the state’s claims to restrict access legitimate. The chapter refutes this argument by pointing out that granting the state a right to privacy is conceptually inconsistent with its democratic accountability.

 

Chapter 5. Executive Secrecy and Democratic Authority

This chapter approaches the problem of secrecy in democratic governance from a new angle by linking the problem of secret uses of power to the formal features of political authority viz. its content-independent character. The focus is thus not on how political authority ought to be exercised but, instead, on what political authority exercised by democratic states is. 

 

Chapter 6. Legislative Secrecy (co-authored with Suzanne Bloks)

This chapter moves from secrecy in exercising executive power to legislative power and in particular parliamentary decision-making. As the legislature comes closer to representing and communicating with the people in all of their plurality than the other branches of government, its capacity to act has a unique democratic value. Parliamentary decisions are taken by voting, which combines individual judgements of representatives into a collective decision. As the common view has it, parliamentary voting should have a public character. The chapter identifies a non-trivial range of conditions in which secret voting is democratically justified in terms of the legislature’s capacity to act

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