Co-directors Peter Galison and Rob Moss put together this Errol Morris-styled talking head documentary about the history and modern day implications of U.S. Government secrecy as the Bush Administration was winding down in early 2008. Secrecy doesn't have anything particularly startling to say – it has no head-slapping “gotcha” moment – but it does present a thought-provoking take on the endlessly shifting relationship between public safety, national security, war, clandestine activities and what the U.S. Government deems necessary to keep secret from the public. It's a worthwhile watch if only to revisit how dramatically 9/11 changed the United States, how the Bush Administration leveraged this tragedy to operate with near-impunity and how difficult it is to undo policies shrouded in the cloak of official government secrecy.
Secrecy does a good job of connecting the dots to the past. It's particularly interesting to discover that an important legal precedent from a case in the early '50s that involved the issue of the U.S. Government's right to retain secrets/classified documents from even judicial review, turns out to have been a complete fabrication. More disturbing is the fact that this same legal precedent has been cited in 600 subsequent cases. It becomes evident that, like all bureaucratic institutions, the secrets industry never contracts, it only grows bigger and gets more convoluted. This ever-expanding web of official secrecy becomes increasingly vulnerable to manipulation and misuse, something exploited with grave implications during the Bush Administration. To question it brings charges of treason. To presume that governments are capable of (or interested in) imposing limitations on their own power, naïve.
The basic quandary and larger issue at the heart of Secrecy is the ongoing relationship between democracy and governmental power, and more specifically - how to police and who decides the degree to which and under what circumstances, governments should be allowed to operate outside the realms of public scrutiny. The U.S. Supreme Court has been the arbiter of these complex questions but it appears fundamentally ill-equipped to be an institutional watchdog because it's focus is too narrowly defined as the interpreters of last resort for the U.S. Constitution and its laws. It's a question that has huge implications for all democratic nations, and no clear answer.
As I watched the film, I couldn't help thinking that part of the problem stems from our increasingly self-centered existence. Tackling issues as large and ingrained as these requires banding together and collectively demanding change, something that just doesn't seem to happen anymore. We get so caught up in our own lives that we can't see the forest for the trees on some of these larger issues. There's an apathy, a dull collective disinterest that seems a product of modern narcissism and it's undermined our will to fight for a better world. Awareness is as good a place to start righting our course as I can think of and films like Secrecy are necessary and valuable assets in that exercise.
Nuggets of truth, if you will.