Do we Overvalue Secret Information Just Because it's Secret?

Another day, another round of government secrecy revelations. Jennifer Valentino-Devries and Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal report that many of the NSA surveillance activities revealed in Edward Snowden's recent leaks were justified by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rulings from the mid-2000s, which used a broad interpretation of how the word "relevant" is phrased in the Patriot Act to permit a vast range of previously restricted data gathering.

As Eric Lichblau detailed in another article on the court over the weekend, the FISC, or FISA court as it's sometimes known, has become a kind of "parallel Supreme Court," issuing important decisions that are almost never made public or subjected to review by other courts.

In a seperate development, the AP reports that, Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, has "ordered military files about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA" in a possible violation of the Freedom of Information Act.  Reporter Richard Lardner speculates that this move "could represent a new strategy for the U.S. government to shield even its most sensitive activities from public scrutiny." 

Stories like these contribute to the public perception that secrecy -- both decisions made in secret and information being indefinitely kept from the public -- is increasingly become the norm rather than the exception in the U.S. national security community. Much of the secrecy surrounding counterterrorism operations in particular may be necessary -- or at least officials genuinely feel that revealing certain information would be damaging to national security. The less generous interpretation is that a great deal of information is being kept classified to shield it from scrutiny. As others have pointed out, it's a bit disingenuous for the president to "welcome debate" on policies his government has kept out of the public eye for years.

But there's also another way to look at the incentives behind government secrecy, one explored in a recent paper published in the journal Political Psychology. The authors, Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven and, Charles Judd of the University of Colorado, suggest that readers tend to believe information and recommendations are of higher quality when they're "secret."

In one experiment, subjects read two documents from 1995 about whether the U.S. should intervene to prevent the sale of fighter jets from Belarus to Peru -- a real debate from this era -- one from the State Department supporting intervention and one from the National Security Council opposing it. Some participants were told that the State document was "classified" at the time the decision was made, others were told that it was the NSC that was secret. "On average, the judgment of information quality when it was secret was significantly greater than the judgment of information quality when it was public," they write.

In another test, one document -- a 1978 NSC memo about the sale of military jets to Taiwan -- was judged to be of much higher quality by participants when they were told that it was a "secret document" that had been declassified on the Freedom of Information Act rather than a "non-classified, public document."  

The authors posit that there's a "secrecy heuristic" that people use when evaluating the weight of information. Specifically, "(a) people weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions, (b) people perceive the same information as being of higher quality when it is portrayed as secret rather than public, and (c) people evaluate otehrs' decisions more favorable when those decisions are based on secret information rather than on public information."

The authors suggest this effect was very much in evidence following the original Wikileaks disclosures, when people who are normally skeptical about the judgments of U.S. officials were suddenly taking as gospel documents written privately by those very same officials. As Dan Drezner wrote at the time, there was a "natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic." In fact, it's quite possible for diplomats or military commanders to be as wrong in private as they are in public. 

It's also not hard to imagine the kind of incentive structure that this bias creates. If classified information and secret recommendations are judged to be more credible, there's going to be a natural tendency for the officials crafting and passing along this information to keep as much of it secret as possible.

The New York Times article on the FISA court notes that the judges issued nearly 1,800 surveillance orders last year and didn't deny a single request from intelligence agencies. We obviously can't judge the information these decisions were based on, but assuming that the 11 judges who visit the capital in shifts to meet in a "secure, windowless courtroom" have brains that are wired like the rest of ours, the very secrecy of these requests and the setting in which they're made could be a factor in why they're basically always approved.

We tend to assume that secrets are important. Otherwise, why would they be secret? Therefore the people who have access to secrets are important and worth listening to. It's not long before you have an incentive for more and more of the government's business to be conducted out of public view. 

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