Book Review of Lords of Secrecy

Scott Horton’s book Lords of Secrecy is a passionate, angry, well-written and disturbing look at how U.S. national security agencies have undermined congressional oversight, and consistently violated the law. At the core, this book argues that the growth of the national security bureaucracy has outgrown the ability of Congress to provide oversight, and fundamentally threatens democracy. In the aftermath of the appalling and evil attacks in Paris last week, there is currently a clear need for effective intelligence agencies. Horton’s work, however, raises questions about the autonomy of these organizations, and the risks that their work may entail by pervading secrecy throughout our political culture.

Horton does not believe that these intelligence agencies are evil. He instead argues that these bureaucracies tend to protect themselves by maximizing secrecy, which also augments their power (195).  Horton is not someone who likes bureaucracy, and he uses the word “bureaucrat” in a manner that implies derision. Sometimes, he suggests, security agencies use secrecy to conceal unethical or incompetent behavior, particularly when it might threaten a manager’s career (57-67). This was the case, for example, with the secret legal finding that justified torture. More often, however, these agencies advocate secrecy simply because it is their nature.

The work has a number of strengths, one of which is his deep knowledge of Classical history. The work is filled with allusions to ancient Greek history and philosophy, which sometimes gives the book a somewhat pessimistic tone (202). Do democracies inevitably decay into oligarchies? At the same time he has a breadth of vision that allows him to address a wide range of topics. For example, Horton argues that the military has increasingly used contractors in military operations in order to distance Americans from any concern about military affairs: “The number of contractors deployed to theaters of conflict as a percentage of the total force has shifted dramatically. During the Vietnam War, the ratio of contractors to uniformed military deployed in the region was about 1:60. By the time of the Clinton-era Balkan conflicts, the ratio had changed to roughly 1:5. However, in the Second Iraq War, the contractor count grew steadily until it reached rough parity with the uniformed military, and then, in the late phases of the Afghanistan conflict, the number of contractors actually came to exceed the number of uniformed military deployed” (107). Horton argues that the nature of the entire U.S. military -with its reliance on air power, its use of contractors, its abolition of the draft, its fascination with drones- is designed to avoid public concern with military affairs. This serves to remove “a brake against the rush to war” (111)

Horton’s discussion of drones, and particularly how they are used in Pakistan, is a good one. From Horton’s perspective (121) the conflict in Pakistan is an unrecognized third U.S. war in the Middle East. While the U.S. does kill terrorists, it also creates deep anger within that country, which may be counter-productive. Because no U.S. lives are at risk, however, events in Pakistan’s northwest receive little public attention. Why, Horton asks (124) are drones operated by civilians when they are engaged in military operations? Should not the drones (125) be under military control? What is happening, he suggests, is that the CIA is becoming militarized (125).

While Horton discusses a wide array of issues, at its core this book is a meditation on the political corrosiveness of secrecy, which empowers a small elite, the Lords of Secrecy. His examples of how secrecy has been used to hide incompetence (138) are appalling. Horton argues that the U.S. had gained very little from this secrecy, while paying very high costs. In the Middle East, the United States is now associated with torture (157-158). Yet the U.S. intelligence services failed to foresee the Arab Spring, in much the same way that they failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union (158). U.S. intelligence services overly on technology (159), and have alienated key allies (169), particularly within NATO. After reading Horton, one has to wonder if the political costs with our allies (Germany, Brazil) have been worth the benefits that surveillance and espionage have achieved.

Horton begins the work with a disturbing account of how Congress failed to provide accountability for torture within the CIA. Their investigation of the CIA caused the agency to “run searches on the Senate computers.” In other words, the CIA was conducting surveillance of the Congressional committee charged with investigating it (8). This anecdote is central to Horton’s argument, that the U.S. intelligence apparatus has escaped Congress’s ability to oversee it. Instead, Horton suggests, we are now reliant on whistleblowers such as Snowden. Without their revelations, the United States would not be able to have an informed public debate about the actions of intelligence agencies. I am writing this review in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris. There can be no question that Western nations need intelligence services, and that our nations face real threats. At the same time, during a moment of crisis it’s important to remember Horton’s point, that there also need to be checks and balances upon these services, and that secrecy can undermine democracy. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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