Re-Understanding the Pentagon Papers and Other Secrets? New Law Review Article Proposes New Framework for Government Secrecy

The Stanford Law Review‘s January 2010 issue includes Deep Secrecy, 62 Stan. L. Rev. 257 (2010), an article by recent Yale Law School grad David Pozen that proposes a new theoretical framework for understanding government secrets (pdf of article; earlier article draft on SSRN).

According to the Review’s abstract:

This Article offers a new way of thinking and talking about government secrecy. In the vast literature on the topic, little attention has been paid to the structure of government secrets, as distinct from their substance or function. Yet these secrets differ systematically depending on how many people know of their existence, what sorts of people know, how much they know, and how soon they know. When a small group of similarly situated officials conceals from outsiders the fact that it is concealing something, the result is a deep secret. When members of the general public understand they are being denied particular items of information, the result is a shallow secret. Every act of state secrecy can be located on a continuum ranging between these two poles.

After tracing some of the existing constituional, structural, and theoretical analyses of government secrets, Pozen applies his new framework to point out that the deeper a secret, the smaller the group of people (and possibly dissenting views) available to deliberate about it.  Pozen notes that government can still keep the substance of some government actions as “shallow secrets” while allowing additional debate and deliberation, concluding that:

Even among the subset of government secrets about which the public knows nothing . . . the comparative insularity of the deeper secrets can pose a special threat to good governance, to liberal democratic values, even to the Constitution. We cannot and should not seek to prevent the executive branch from keeping secrets. We can and should seek to have them kept as shallow as possible.

Along the way, Pozen evaluates a number of the secrets kept by the Bush administration, including many that are discussed elsewhere on this website.  For Pozen’s take on the Pentagon Papers era, see p. 292 of the article where he describes the Vietnam and Watergate era as one of the first times in American history where scholars began to see the government’s asserted need for secrecy as implicating constitutional values.

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