(Photo: Madison Capitol Building, Madison, USA par @michael75 - Unsplash)
The impeachment investigation in reaction to the Trump administration’s use of military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for information on the Biden family will most likely continue to make international headlines for the coming months. With the debates currently centred on the domestic consequences of these events, it is easy to forget their broader implications, especially for intelligence and national security issues.
In this article, I argue that the current scandal reveals the complexity of dealing with secrecy in a democratic society. I show how the events that led to it exemplify the usefulness of oversight institutions and how Trump’s reaction could affect the effectiveness of the US security policy in the future.
Managing secrecy in the US context
Whistleblowing in the American context is usually associated with controversial figures who acted outside the legal system such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. However, the CIA operative who came forward with information about the phone call between Trump and Zelensky seems to have acted lawfully.
Under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, members of the US intelligence community are authorized to report potential abuses of power by the government to Congress. If these accusations are deemed credible, congressional committees can conduct investigations and eventually reveal information to the public. This provision offers a legal path for whistleblowers to share sensitive information with the Congress who then decides whether to publicize potential state secrets.
Without getting into the legal details of the procedure and the specific complaint that sparked the scandal, the process that led to the current situation can be summarized as follow: a legal and institutional path to revealing intelligence was used and ultimately the sensitive information was shared with the public. The case is now perceived as a serious abuse of executive powers.
Oversight institutions and national security policy
This process and its consequences reveal the importance of oversight procedures and institutions when dealing with state secrets.
In democratic societies, citizens and legislative bodies are skeptical of information being withheld from the public by the executive power. Yet they also recognize the need to keep some information secret, especially regarding diplomacy and national security. Secrecy can prevent adversaries from acquiring information with strategic value such as technological breakthroughs, intelligence, etc.
Regarding diplomatic negotiations, secrecy can bring confidence between state leaders by temporarily isolating them from domestic and international audiences who could oppose and jeopardize these initiatives (Yarhi-Milo 2013). This “private space” between leaders can also limit escalation during military conflicts and international crises, preventing them from degenerating into full-blown wars (Carson 2018; Carson and Yarhi-Milo 2017). If used in the right way and the right context, secrecy can actually be virtuous for international relations.
The problem is then less about secrecy per se than how to determine what constitutes a “right” way and a “right” context to use it, a choice that every democratic society is faced with. After all, few are those who would agree to write a blank check to their leaders hoping that they won’t use secrecy to cover-up incompetence or corruption. But how can we evaluate the legitimacy of what we cannot see?
This problem is what Michael Colaresi (2014) describes as the “secrecy dilemma”: secrets that have diplomatic or strategic value are no longer secrets if we can see what they are and how they are used. We cannot constantly scrutinize how the government uses its “secrecy prerogative” without making it irrelevant for international relations. Thus, without mechanisms regulating the government’s conduct, the difference between rational confidence in the need for secrecy and blind trust becomes tenuous.
This is where oversight institutions become crucial. According to Colaresi (2014), their existence constrains governments by reducing their ability to use their power for non-security issues with impunity. This has two major consequences for the effectiveness and the efficiency of national security policies.
On the one hand, if leaders face higher risks of getting caught acting wrongfully, they should show more restraint when employing secrecy. This should incentivize them to carefully use their power and the resources that are provided to them.
On the other hand, greater scrutiny should increase the public’s confidence in policies that cannot be presented in details without revealing potentially valuable information. Like previously mentioned, this is often the case for national security issues. If the public knows that illegitimate or illegal actions can be revealed, they should be more willing to give resources to their government without knowing exactly how they will be used.
This dynamic should even incentivize leaders to tie their own hands: by reducing constraints on whistleblowing and facilitating the sanction of their wrongdoings, governments can increase their credibility while keeping their ability to use secrecy (Spaniel and Poznansky 2018). In other words, by simultaneously improving the government’s access to resources and the way it uses them while preserving its ability to keep secrets, oversight mechanisms should lead to a theoretically optimal national security policy.
Trump’s reaction: effects on legitimacy and public trust
Following these arguments, the current scandal should ironically increase the American public’s trust in the government. After all, it exposed how the legal procedures and institutions were able to expose abuses and cover-ups. While the current and future administrations should be deterred from using secrecy for non-security related ends, the public should be more confident in their ability to sanction future wrongdoings.
Yet Trump’s aggressive reaction, attacking the whistleblower’s credibility and comparing the current investigation to a coup, could jeopardize this equilibrium. With Republicans in Congress backing this narrative, the public is incentivized to read the current events through partisan lenses. This is hardly surprising considering the high level of polarization in American politics and the profound implications of an impeachment procedure. However, the last sections showed how transforming the secrecy dilemma into a partisan issue could have damaging consequences on the efficiency and legitimacy of the US security policy. If inflexible solidarity can be helpful to navigate through political crises, neither radical skepticism nor unconditional trust in the government’s use of secrecy is ultimately helpful from a policymaking standpoint.
The value of secrecy for national security is ultimately based on a delicate balance between public trust and the government’s credibility. If the current trend keeps on, the ability to find this balance could be an unanticipated victim of the impeachment investigation.
Carson, Austin. 2018. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Carson, Austin and Keren Yarhi-Milo. 2017. “Covert Communication: The Intelligibility and Credibility of Signaling in Secret”. Security Studies 26 (no 1): 124-156.
Colaresi, Michael P. 2014. Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spaniel, William and Michael Poznansky. 2018. “Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs”. American Journal of Political Science 62 (no 3): 668-681.
Yarhi-Milo, Keren. 2013. “Tying Hands Behind Closed Doors: The Logic and Practice of Secret Reassurance”. Security Studies 22 (no 3): 405-435.