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In a single recent year the U.S. classified about five times the number of pages added to the Library of Congress. We live in a world where the production of secret knowledge dwarfs the production of open knowledge. Depending on whom you ask, government secrecy is either the key to victory in our struggle against terrorism, or our Achilles heel. But is so much secrecy a bad thing?
Secrecy saves: counter-terrorist intelligence officers recall with fury how a newspaper article describing National Security Agency abilities directly led to the loss of information that could have avoided the terrorist killing of 241 soldiers in Beirut late in October 1983. Secrecy guards against wanton nuclear proliferation, against the spread of biological and chemical weapons. Secrecy is central to our ability to wage an effective war against terrorism.
Secrecy corrupts. From extraordinary rendition to warrant-less wiretaps and Abu Ghraib, we have learned that, under the veil of classification, even our leaders can give in to dangerous impulses. Secrecy increasingly hides national policy, impedes coordination among agencies, bloats budgets and obscures foreign accords; secrecy throws into the dark our system of justice and derails the balance of power between the executive branch and the rest of government.
This film is about the vast, invisible world of government secrecy. By focusing on classified secrets, the government's ability to put information out of sight if it would harm national security, Secrecy explores the tensions between our safety as a nation, and our ability to function as a democracy.
But who to interview? From the beginning, we aimed to show a world of secrecy as seen by those in it, not by pundits celebrating or castigating from their perches. Nor did we want famous former heads of agencies or high-ranking politicians who had already spoken so frequently on issues of public policy that they were likely to quote themselves—or return to justify actions they had taken. Instead, we wanted to get a sense of how more usual people moved in the shadow world, agents and analysts, for example. One of the former agents served in many postings across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, including years as CIA Station Chief in Jerusalem. Our other Agency interlocutor worked both in the Intelligence and Operations Directorates; inter alia, he helped run a group on "Foreign Denial and Deception" (a fabulous title that means denying information to other intelligence services and deceiving them). He also takes very hard-line stance on press leaks. Finally, from the National Security Agency, we found the National Security Agency (NSA)'s long-time head of information security, a guardian of the secrets of the most secretive of government agencies—they make the CIA look open.
Bit by bit, we began to find ways to get at this epoch struggle over secrecy—what the stakes were, how to make the secrecy wars visible, how to shuttle between the political and the personal. But we knew that the film couldn't work as we wanted it to, if it did not find a way to get at how the rubber met the road—how these positions, passionately held as they were, played out in the broader world.
So we chose two remarkable and hugely influential Supreme Court cases—and followed what they meant for the structure of secrecy. One case launched secrecy as the in early years of the Cold War, the other is urgently contemporary, still being fought as and it shapes and reshapes boundaries between the President, the law, and secrecy. We ended up wending both of these cases through the film; they take battles over secrecy and give them a human, personal dimension.
Throughout the long process of making this film, we've intentionally not proceeded as if the issue of national security secrecy could be tied "solved" with an easy set of steps. We see the issues of secrecy as tough, among the hardest we face as we, and not just in the United States, struggle to bolster democracy in a time of great fear.