Book Review: Presidents’ Secrets
The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power
by Mary Graham
Yale University Press, 2017
The government of the United States of America, it’s important to remember, was founded in secrecy. In May of 1787, delegates assembled in Philadelphia with the publicly-announced intention of revamping the Articles of Confederation that had seen the fledgling nation through the Revolution, but that intention was a lie: secretly, most of the delegates intended to scrap the Articles of Confederation in favor of a system of more concentrated, more imperial power, and they worked hard to keep their intentions secret for four months while they worked.
Mary Graham, co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has written a fast-paced and comprehensive new book on the subject of this dark current running through American history; Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story – that would require ten times the book’s 200 pages. But Graham provides an engrossing – and appalling – account by touching down on a half-dozen signature moments when the dark apparatus of governmental secrecy came close to daylight. The architecture of modern-era secrecy is constructed by President Wilson, who’s then sheltered by that architecture when he’s incapacitated by a stroke while in office and an entire clandestine executive branch gathered around the White House. President Truman’s involvement with the nation’s new atomic armament; the morass of secrets that stuck to Lyndon Johnson throughout his public career; the backstage wheeling-and-dealing connected with President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon – all are narrated with energy and real insight, done in a clean, readable prose-line, as in the case of Ford and Nixon:
Almost immediately, the president who promised openness became embroiled in issues of secrecy. Just four weeks after taking office, Ford was accused of making a secret deal to pardon Richard Nixon in exchange for Nixon’s resignation. The former president had not yet been charged with any crime. But on September 8, Ford pardoned him of any offenses he might be charged with in the future. Ford tried to explain. A pardon would help to heal the nation.
The book’s strongest chapter deals with President George W. Bush, whose actions in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks shook the dust off the remnants of the Cold War backstage mechanics and weaponized all aspects of governmental secrecy. It was during the 9-11 crisis that the American public first became aware of the concept of “continuity of government,” of “undisclosed locations” where the US government could operate entirely free of public knowledge, much less public accountability, and, eventually, of “dark sites” and extra-legal maneuverings the full extent of which may never be known. The Bush presidency focuses a great deal of Graham’s pith and quiet anger:
By the time Bush left office, it was clear that the president’s attempts to hide fundamental policy changes had been counterproductive. Secrecy impaired consultation among advisers, deprived the president of opportunities to lead, and reduced the lasting legitimacy of his actions … The president’s secrecy added needless acrimony to important debates, left a trail of distrust, and staked out new limits on future presidents’ emergency actions. Presidents could not unilaterally create new military commissions. They could not decree harsh interrogation methods. They could not deprive prisoners of their right to challenge their detention. As Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a statement that resonated, a national emergency does not give the president a blank check when it comes to individual rights.
The book’s coda deals with President Obama, whose drone-warfare legacy alone guarantees him a starring role in any later and longer account of US governmental secrecy. And every reader encountering that coda in 2017 will automatically think of the current occupant of the Oval Office, the first in a generation to refuse to make public his tax returns, a man so obviously compromised that it seems likely that secrecy will be the hallmark of his administration to an unprecedented extent.
Graham’s book seethes with outrage at the growing effrontery of American presidential secrecy, but it maintains a stubborn current of civic optimism throughout, a defiance of what is clearly a dead historical momentum toward Star Chamber impenetrability. “Secrecy may last for days, weeks, months, or decades,” Graham writes. “In a democracy, it cannot last forever. In the United States, secrecy is always an exception to the public’s right to open information and deliberations, grounded in the Constitution’s insistence on a government by the people and embodied in federal and state laws.” Readers will hope she’s right, but I doubt many of them will believe it.