It is March 16, 1968. Officer Hugh Thompson of the 123rd Aviation Battalion is soaring above Son My—a small Vietnamese village—in his Hiller OH-23-Raven helicopter. The hamlet is marked on his military maps as “My Lai.” With him are Lawrence Colburn, the gunner, and Glenn Andreotta, the crew chief. The soldiers are at Son My on a reconnaissance mission, investigating military intelligence’s suspicion that the town is a hotbed of National Liberation Front organizing. They fly over unperturbed, reporting the inactivity. The quiet village is nevertheless shelled by American artillery. Thompson’s crew assumes that some other intelligence warrants this action, as well as the advance of Captain Ernest Medina’s Charlie Company, into Son My. As American forces move in, Thompson sees huts ablaze, hears gunfire, and spies figures running and dropping throughout the territory. “We kept flying back and forth, re-conning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-three-four-five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever,” he recalls decades later. The helicopter crew is confused, unsure of what is happening. They fly over a ditch filled with bodies. Finally, “we [see] a young girl about twenty years old lying on the grass. We could see that she was unarmed and wounded in the chest. We marked her with smoke because we saw a squad not too far away. The smoke was green, meaning it’s safe to approach. Red would have meant the opposite. We were hovering six feet off the ground not more than twenty feet away when Captain Medina came over, kicked her, stepped back, and finished her off. He did it right in front of us. When we saw Medina do that, it clicked. It was our guys doing the killing.”
Five hundred four unarmed Son My civilians were burned alive or executed by shooting. Some were raped. The United States government moved quickly to suppress news of its troops’ barbarous actions. March sixteenth’s Army press briefing stated blithely that “in an action today, American Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City.” News of the My Lai Massacre broke two years after the fact, thanks only to the investigative prowess of reporter Seymour Hersh. Official Army inquiries and the lone resultant court martial were conducted in secrecy. According to ecologist Arthur Westing, the climate that enabled the Massacre was fostered by secretive wartime policies advocating “truly massive rural area bombing, chemical and mechanical forest destruction, large-scale crop destruction, destruction of food stores, the destruction of hospitals, and large-scale population displacements.” All Vietnamese—non-combatants included—were America’s enemy. The public reacted with shock when it was revealed that wartime policies resulted in such cruelties and coverups.
This all begs the question: can a government that forms and executes secret policies reasonably call itself a democracy?
Private policy—the practice of backdoor policymaking, as opposed to public policy—is today justified through a legalism known as the “state secret privilege.” This privilege was first invoked during Aaron Burr’s 1807 treason trial, during which Burr stood accused of conspiring to form a secessionist planter’s republic in contemporary Texas. Burr subpoenaed correspondence between President Thomas Jefferson and General James Wilkinson, some of which the government claimed would damage national security if revealed. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall upheld Burr’s subpoena, but ruled “that the court would withhold any irrelevant information that would endanger the public safety if disclosed.”
Marshall thus established a precedent by which the courts acted as arbiters of legitimate secrecy. Judges generally exercised this authority like Marshall did—in the public’s interest. If transparency did not endanger “public safety,” then transparency is what judges ordered. This curtailed excessive invocation of secrecy by the executive. Cresmer v. United States (1949) provides an apt illustration. The judge in this case challenged the state’s right to withhold documents, finding “nothing in [them] which would in any way reveal a military secret or subject the United States and its armed forces to any peril by reason of complete revelation.” Against executive objections, he ruled that “it would appear to be unseemly for the Government to thwart efforts of [the] plaintiff” to collect evidence pertinent to their suit on the basis of flippant secrecy claims.
Today’s state secret privilege, based in the 1953 United States v. Reynolds Supreme Court case, little resembles Cresmer’s limited privilege. Reynolds saw six widows suing the U.S. military, alleging negligence in the mid air death of their husbands. The Army refused to release their accident report, claiming that the husbands’ plane contained secret equipment. Both the district and appeals courts ordered release of the documents, as “to uncritically accept the government’s word would be to abdicate the court’s duty to protect the ability of each party to present its case fairly in court. It would leave control entirely in the hands of self-interested executive claims.”
The Supreme Court broke with the lower courts’ decisions. Not bothering to give the report even an in camera—a closed session—review, the Court ruled that the government’s invocation of an absolute secrecy privilege was legitimate. Forty-seven years later, the contentious accident report was finally unearthed. It did not contain any confidential information, but showed evidence of the very negligence the widows were alleging.
The Reynolds ruling, though now exposed as a deception against the Supreme Court, remains the underpinning of our modern state secret privilege. Today, the executive branch is legally free to decide what is secret unilaterally, with no regard for the public interest and no meaningful supervision by legislators or the courts. Secrecy continues to be invoked largely around nebulously defined “national security,” and classification rates trend upwards each decade. Entire government policies, rather than just individual documents, are now shielded from public exposure and debate.
The American government fought the Cold War, and currently fights the War on Terror, using policies it does not share with the American people. In this climate, state secrets are used shockingly often to skirt criticism over negligence and incompetence, investigations of criminal activity, and even simple debate over public policy, rather than to safeguard actual national security. This is profoundly undemocratic.
Incompetence and criminality abound, for instance, in the ledgers of the Pentagon’s “black budget”—the president and Army’s off-record endowment for weapons-making and war mongering operations. The black budget directly contravenes Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of our Constitution, which states that “a regular statement of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time,” and has been challenged repeatedly on these grounds. Representative Les Aspin, for instance, inserted into the 1986 Congressional Record statistics which showed the black budget had gone up 800 percent since 1981. “This is grossly excessive. There is no excuse for having so much of the defense budget hidden from public view,” Aspin commented. Defense consultant Richard Garwin once noted astutely that “the proliferation of these [black] programs is… primarily to avert criticism and evaluation, and that is profoundly antidemocratic.” In 1972, civilian William Richardson argued successfully that omission of CIA funds from the federal budget renders the budget “a fraudulent document… a misrepresentation inconsistent with responsible government”; that a “revolution had been fought because of a distant sovereign who taxed and spent without accounting.”
The black budget nevertheless remains a fixture of our national accounting, regularly serving up absurd stories of graft and folly: $435 hammers, $640 toilet seats, $8,000 helicopter gears worth $500, and $43 million gas stations. Defense contractors are making a killing (pun fully intended) on secret budgets, largely unaccountable to auditors and unconstrained by public debate. The merchants of death further grease the gears of state graft by sending bribes back the politicians’ way.
Questionable spending of this nature reaches truly gargantuan proportions—millions for research on bomb-sniffing elephants, billions for an anti-ICBM system, the WWMCCS communications system, and the doomsday Milstar program. The Milstar program—a Strangelovian system intended to fight nuclear wars after most of humanity has already been annihilated—is particularly perverse. Initiated by President Jimmy Carter and built by Lockheed Martin, it will, if ever completed, result in a nuclear “victory” agreeable only to the likes of General Curtis LeMay—one with “one Russian and two Americans” left alive. Thankfully, for the sake of taxpayers’ lives, if not their checkbooks, the idea is likely unworkable. General David Jones told Congress upon his retirement that money is being thrown down a “bottomless pit” with Milstar. It is little wonder the Defense Department has failed every audit it has ever undertaken (which amount to a measly five audits).
Disclosure of corruption and technological boondoggles does not harm national security. It bolsters it. Wasted defense dollars protect no one, and ill-advised black programs frequently produce new security threats. The anti-ICBM race fueled nuclear proliferation worldwide, while Contra and Mujahideen funding in the 1980s helped spawn the Bloods, Crips, Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Public debate on such programs seems prudent—not to say, desperately necessary—for the survival of a legitimate democracy. Furthermore, allocating money to the military eats away at funding for education, housing, and healthcare, and contributes to a culture of militarism rather than healthy, engaged democracy. Secrecy here serves only crooked politicians and defense contractors. It does not serve the public interest. It is undemocratic, a perversion of the public’s will.
Intelligence organizations furthermore make use of the national security designations to mask active erosion of democratic processes both domestically and internationally through their activities. Domestically, the clearest confirmed examples of this are the 1970s era FBI COINTELPRO campaign and the similar modern NSA and FBI domestic surveillance programs which target innocent civilians for voicing opinions and organizing politically. Internationally, regime change operations—in which governments making a stand against corporate or International Monetary Fund influence are overthrown in favor of free-market–friendly dictators—abound. Famous examples include Iran 1953, Chile 1973, and Bolivia 2020.
COINTELPRO was the FBI’s designation for all anti-civil rights, anti–labor, and anti–peace movement operations. It utilized bribery, yellow media attacks, trumped-up criminal prosecutions, and similar illegal schemes to decimate the American activist and intellectual community during the 1970s. The rights to dissent and to organize serious third-party political organizations were severely curtailed by COINTELPRO. Files were opened and surveillance engaged against peoples ranging from respected activists like Muhammed Kenyatta, to “an unknown Bronx man who told an FBI agent he had watched his neighbor walk around naked inside his own home, a fact that had no connection to national security or suspicion of a crime, but was nevertheless placed in a permanent bureau file,” according to reporter Betty Medsger. Progressive organizations were regularly infiltrated, monitored, and often sabotaged. In one communique, for instance, FBI Director J. Egar Hoover ordered blanket surveillance of all black student unions in the United States: “Effective immediately, all BSUs and similar organizations organized to project the demands of black students, which are not presently under investigation, are to be subjects of discreet, preliminary inquiries … carefully conducted to avoid criticism …” Even non-political gatherings of firebrands were subject to FBI harassment. Medsger once reported on a “wedding of a former nun and former priest that was attended by more plainclothes FBI agents than invited guests.”
Illegal surveillance activities were abutted by illegal entrapment, defamation, and even political murder; such as was the case with Fred Hampton, leader of Chicago’s multiracial Rainbow Coalition, responsible for establishing neighborhood health clinics, liberation schools, and a Breakfast for Children program on the West Side of Chicago. Evidence has emerged that suggests FBI informant William O’Neal drugged Hampton’s drink to incapacitate him the night Hampton was killed, execution style, in a nighttime raid organized by the FBI, the Cook County State Attorney’s Office, and Chicago PD with the express purpose of killing Hampton. O’Neal had provided police with a map of Hampton’s apartment, with a spot marked “Fred’s Bed,” to show officers where to shoot.
Much of the above information emerged due to the 1971 Citizens’ Commission to investigate the FBI burglary of a Pennsylvania FBI office. Attorney General John Mitchell attempted to block publication of the incriminating leaked documents, claiming they would “endanger national security and reveal national defense secrets.” The Washington Post, among others, differed in opinion, and sent the documents to print. “This is a concept of internal security appropriate, perhaps, for the secret police of the Soviet Union… We believe the American public needs to think long and hard about whether internal security rests essentially upon official surveillance and suppression of dissent or upon the traditional freedom of every citizen to speak his mind on any subject,” the Post explained to its readers.
Such surveillance and sabotage operations against dissenters continue today, shielded from public debate using the same “national security” guise as that of the COINTELPRO era. Leaks occur occasionally. Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures, revealing COINTELPRO-like mass surveillance of Americans by the NSA, were momentous. In a 2022 article, the MIT Technology Review reported that “law enforcement agencies in Minnesota have been carrying out a secretive, long-running surveillance program targeting civil rights activists and journalists in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd… the program was set up a year ago, ostensibly to maintain public order… investigation reveals that the initiative expanded far beyond its publicly announced scope to include expansive use of tools to scour social media, track cell phones, and amass detailed images of people’s faces… regardless of whether the subjects were suspected of any wrongdoing.” Trevor Aaronson of The Intercept has revealed that these anti-BLM activities were ubiquitous in the summer of 2020, involving extensive FBI infiltration of peaceful protests and entrapment of activists around the country by figures like the shadowy, silver hearse driving Mickey Windecker. Publishers like Julian Assange who report such information are threatened with life in prison or death for “threatening national security” by revealing the state’s secret and illegal dirty laundry. This all amounts to, in effect, the weaponization of state secrecy in order to shut down public debate and political engagement; or, in other words, to curtail democratic processes.
Secrecy clouds accountability, without which representative democracy cannot work. We elect our representatives in order to enact the peoples’ will, and few electors would support their politicians helping weapons contractors to create conflict or bogus projects for the sake of corporate profits. Secret counter-dissent and regime change operations go further, firmly entrenching vast swaths of both the American and international electorate as outright enemies of the purportedly democratic American state. No truly democratic state fights against its citizens’ right to publicly air their causes or hold government officials accountable, or against the rights of other nations to choose their own government. The time has come to question the troves of information kept secret from us “for our own safety.” Until control of social and political decision-making is wrested from the military, executive branch, banks, and corporate offices and given back to the courts and the people, America has little standing in calling itself a democracy.