There’s a wry, and very true, quip about military secrecy in Garry Wills’s recent book Bomb Power. He notes that the “secret bombing” of Cambodia was hardly a secret to the Cambodians, or for that matter to the North Vietnamese, Chinese, or Russians. The only people from whom the “secret” bombing could plausibly be kept secret were the American people, who might not be supportive of Nixon’s escalation in Indochina.

I thought of Wills’s book when reading George Carey’s item on WikiLeaks at Imaginative Conservative. Not only do I concur with Professor Carey’s points, but this comment-box remark by Stephen Masty seems exactly on target (so to speak):

NPR reports that “Government workers classified over 15 million documents last year, more than twice the number classified in 2001. The cost? About $7 billion.” This is despite government efforts in 2000 to reduce the volume of classified documentation and to cut the length of time over which such papers remain classified.

US officials tell me, bluntly, that unless they label their briefs as secret or top secret or whatever, nobody will read them. They are inundated with paper (or soft copies), much facilitated by emails batched off to scores of recipients for no better reason that the laziness of hitting the ‘repond to all’ button. so, on one hand, overworked officials play it safe and read the secret stuff while often ignoring the rest, on the other they label all their works secret in hope that they get read, ensuring that more and more of the in-boxes fill with classified traffic until there is too much to read there too. The virtues of the Information Age may be overstated somewhat.

That brings me back to Wills’s book, which is excellent on these and related topics. Secrecy is power in government; it imbues officials, even lowly ones, with unimpeachable authority over the layman. You think going to war with Iraq is ridiculous? Well, the evidence you see before your eyes might be ridiculous (or forged), but trust the president and his men have access to the really important intelligence that you aren’t allow to know about. Trust us: what you don’t know entirely contradicts what you do know.

Not only is this an easy and effective way to manipulate the public, it’s also a nice way for government to deceive itself. There is nothing magical or inerrant about the work of intelligence. It involves collecting a lot of data, much of it dubiously sourced and founded upon rumor, and analyzing incomplete and often contradictory information in an attempt to ascertain what’s really happening. But policymakers have their own ideas about what’s happening even before they receive the reports, and they’re more inclined to listen to reports that agree with what they already think. Intelligence middle-managers who provide policymakers with the “product” their superiors want rise through the ranks, which means that analysts in turn have a powerful incentive to provide their managers with the product most in demand. Ever wonder how the U.S. could have such a feeble understanding of the Soviet Union’s political weakness or why the experts seemed genuinely confused about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? The privileging of information on the basis of what fits preconceived notions — notions that often, in turn, fit with the interests of defense contractors, self-interested politicians, ideologues, and foreign lobbyists — creates a virtual reality for the very people who are supposed to know what’s really going on.