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From George Washington To Barack Obama, Tracing The Evolution Of Presidential Secrecy

Since the formation of the United States, presidents have struggled with what to keep secret from the American people and what to reveal.

As co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Mary Graham has studied how various presidents have handled the problem over the years.

Graham joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to talk about her new book " Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power."

Book Excerpt: ‘Presidents’ Secrets’

By Mary Graham


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which shattered the nation's prevailing notions of national security, also called into question a generation of limitations on presidents' secrets. Threats from elusive networks of extremists created an urgent need for secret intelligence in order to locate terrorists before they attacked. But those threats also created an urgent need for public information so that citizens could understand the new challenges, protect themselves and their communities, guard their rights, and grant their consent to new policies.

New threats and advances in digital technology meant that old bargains didn't work anymore. In the years that followed, presidents could no longer protect the nation's vital secrets. Nor did they provide the openness that Americans now expected.

Uncertainty bred confusion and suspicion. Fewer than a quarter of Americans trusted the federal government most of the time, close to an all-time low since the 1950s. Nearly all of those polled said that they had lost control of their personal information. Most believed they were being watched as they went about their daily lives. Growing distrust deprived leaders' actions of legitimacy and kept the nation from responding with its full strength to new crises.

In this time of rapid change, the aims and instincts of the first two presidents of the twenty-first century took on unusual importance. Determined to prevent the next attack and intent on demonstrating executive authority, George W. Bush circled around settled law and practice. His new programs of stealth detention, interrogation, and surveillance tested the limits of presidents' secret, unilateral actions. Eight years later, Barack Obama revealed some of those programs, anchored anti-terrorism policies in national and international law, and made a bold promise that the president's secret actions would always be accompanied by oversight from Congress and the courts. However, secretive oversight of secretive programs no longer worked. Citizens no longer trusted Congress, and they expected open debate about presidents' proposals that affected their rights or their safety. When information leaked out about surveillance, armed drones, and cyberattacks, the president demonstrated belatedly that it was possible to have a productive debate about security measures without revealing operational secrets.

Amid presidents' steps and missteps, partisan rancor, media hype, and changing threats, the nation is seeking an accommodation between openness and secrecy for the digital age. Far from being helpless, ordinary citizens have a leading role to play in deciding what the new bargain will be.

Three times in the past, Americans have recalibrated the role of secrecy in open government when confronted with new threats and advancing technology. Change was never part of a grand plan and often was not even recognized while it was taking place. Instead, new accommodations emerged from political conflict, personal power struggles, and presidents' ad hoc efforts to solve pressing problems. Each time, however, recalibrating the role of secrecy led to lasting changes in American democracy.

From PRESIDENTS’ SECRETS: THE USE AND ABUSE OF HIDDEN POWER, by Mary Graham, published by Yale University Press in February 2017. Reproduced by permission.

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