The inherent dangers of secrecy in the US foreign policy

Since the Vietnam War, officials of the United States have increasingly abused the essential democratic safeguards of accountability and an informed citizenry in apparent attempts to protect themselves from being held accountable for their actions. They use secrecy and disinformation to prevent the American people from obtaining the information they need to evaluate their government’s actions and to hold the officials accountable.

Presidents have further reduced the probability that they will ever be held accountable for their actions by increasingly claiming to be above laws and norms that apply to all other Americans, thus effectively rendering established accountability mechanisms irrelevant.

Until democratic safeguards are appropriately restored and honored, secrecy and the resulting lack of accountability among high-level of government officials will continue to create major foreign policy failures.

President Donald Trump’s attempts to minimize the negative consequences resulting from the death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents on October 2, 2018 provide an example of foreign policy problems created by excessive secrecy.

On October 18, 2018, the Washington Post published Mr. Khashoggi’s last column. It presented an overview of his concerns about the lack of personal freedom in Arab countries and his fear that governments in those countries were silencing the media.1

Many countries, in addition to the Arab countries mentioned in Khashoggi’s last column, have autocratic governments that are repressing the media and individual freedom. Secrecy, fear, disinformation campaigns, and press restrictions are tools typically used to develop, strengthen and expand autocracies. The same tools have also been used by the United States to support autocracies and to support secret operations.

The circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s death and President Trump’s extraordinary efforts to protect his relationships with Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, have generated widespread interest. United States Senators have expressed their intent to impose sanctions against Saudis involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s death and have voiced concern that the Saudis have used United States’ arms inappropriately with the result of unnecessary civilian deaths in Yemen.

President Trump has explained on numerous occasions that the Saudis had ordered more than one-hundred billion dollars of military equipment from the United States and that that they are playing a very important strategic role for the United States. His comments are generally interpreted to mean that he would oppose any action that threatened Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States.

Unfortunately, the American people have no way to evaluate President Trump’s actions because his son-in-law and the Crown Prince developed most, if not all controlling agreements in secret.2

Vietnam and Iraq exemplify the difficulties associated with secrecy and disinformation. The United States was at war in Vietnam for more than two years before the Secretary of Defense acknowledged in 1967 that the United States bombing campaign had not worked.3 In 1971, the Pentagon Papers informed the American people that the war was based on years of secret arrangements and was begun with false justifications to gain the American people’s support.4

In Iraq, I learned both the difficulties and the consequences of trying to overcome the secrecy and disinformation that covered up a relationship between the United States and Iraq that involved illegal torture activities at an Iraq Ministry of Interior (MOI) detention facility. There, I saw what can never be unseen when I entered the facility on June 29, 2004 along with a small team of other soldiers in response to reports that brutal torture was being conducted on Iraqis and people of other nationalities by MOI personnel. 

After entering the facility, we disarmed the MOI personnel and found approximately one-hundred brutally tortured detainees. Shortly after we began providing lifesaving medical treatment to the most seriously injured detainees, we were ordered to return the detainees to their torturers and later ordered not to say anything about what we saw and did at the facility.5

The orders were of great concern to the soldiers because they reflected a complete lack of empathy for the detainees and a complete lack of respect for the soldiers’ training and sense of humanity. The orders were of special concern to me because detainees that I had interviewed before I was ordered out of the facility were clinging to my uniform and begging not to be left behind.6

For reasons too complicated to discuss here, I gave a written statement to an embedded reporter after deciding the orders were unlawful. Although the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, publicly stated that the team had acted honorably and would not be punished, I believe my career, and I suspect the careers of some other team members, were damaged because we tried to stop illegal torture activities.

Long after being medevaced out of Iraq, I learned that the secrecy and disinformation used to cover up the MOI incident were so intense that they prevented the American people from knowing about, and having any chance to stop, fundamentally flawed plans that led to al-Qaeda’s phenomenal growth and an unnecessary increase in the cost and duration of the war.

The frequency and magnitude of foreign policy failures that have occurred to date, justify periodic reviews of active policies to ensure they do not unnecessarily limit information available to the American people. The tendency of policies involving autocratic governments to unnecessarily limit information justifies priority reviews of policies involving autocratic governments.

1 CNN, “Washington Post publishes ‘last piece’ by missing Saudi journalist Khashoggi”, updated 18 October 2018,

(accessed 21 October 2018)

2 MSN, Trump doubts Saudi account of journalist’s death: ‘There’s been deception and there’s been lies”, 21 October 2018’s-death-‘there’s-been-deception-and-there’s-been-lies’/ar-BBOEFUo?OCID=ansmsnnews11 (accessed 21 October 2018) 

3 Totally, “Vietnam War” (accessed 21 October 2018)

4 National Archives, “Pentagon Papers” (Accessed 21 October 2018) s

5 Pacific Northwest News, “Ordered to just walk away”, 8 August 2004, updated and posted 8 July 2013 (accessed 21 October 2018)

6, “Searching for Steele”, updated 4 April, 2013 (accessed 21 October 2018)

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