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Presidential secrets have shaped U.S. history

March 12, 2017 at 12:58 PM EDT
If the Constitutional Convention had not been held behind closed doors, it’s unlikely that delegates would have agreed on the Constitution, says author Mary Graham of “Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power.” Graham outlines how presidents have used secrecy to provide shelter from public scrutiny, protect sensitive national security operations, cover up mistakes or for other reasons. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

By Christopher Booker and Connie Kargbo

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The actions taken by the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, were, according to author Mary Graham, a recalibration of the role of secrecy in open government. A president who championed limited government approved the secret detention of foreign terrorist suspects and the eavesdropping on phone calls of American citizens.

MARY GRAHAM: When his detention policies and interrogation policies and surveillance policies began to be revealed, this was then a few years later, I thought there must be some ground rules. There must be a law that tells us what a president can do behind closed doors in an emergency. But it turned out there really were no laws. One thing about our system of governance that makes secrecy so interesting is that there’s really no way that to stop a president from doing something illegal, unethical, or just plain foolish behind closed doors.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In her new book, “Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power,” Graham finds modern presidential secrecy is paramount in questions of national security, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

The Bush administration came in with a firm commitment that they could move things quickly through government and then they have the crisis of 9/11. And this substantially changed the way that they used information and used secrecy.

MARY GRAHAM: It’s only in the hard times when the president has to face these values — the conflict between values that we cherish, that you see a president’s true character. So I think that these are the times when we need to pay attention to what decisions the president makes about openness and secrecy.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: When President Barack Obama took over, he declassified memos used to justify harsh interrogations of post 9/11 terror suspects, and he created a national declassification center for older government documents.

But Wikileaks and self-described whistleblower, Edward Snowden, prevented the Obama administration from concealing details about electronic surveillance, drone strikes, and offensive cyber weapons.

What was it like coming to the finish line of your book toward the end of the Obama administration thinking that we have just now tapped into a whole new chapter of information and secrecy, particularly the ways in which the digital age are transforming the whole landscape?

MARY GRAHAM: Secrecy doesn’t work in the digital age. One way or another, controversial secrets and big controversial secrets come out these days. And it’s much harder to keep anything hidden for very long. And what ends up happening is that the president cedes leadership to his opponents and to the media. And therefore is weakened in the process.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: A co-founder of Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project, Graham finds our democracy’s delicate balance between openness and secrecy dates back to country’s founding.

You write, “in democracy, secrecy cannot last forever.” And yet, our government, the representative form we so often celebrate, was rather shockingly born out of unplanned secrecy.

MARY GRAHAM: That’s so true. So the Constitutional Convention was held behind closed doors. The delegates certainly felt that it had to be held behind closed doors because they had been asked by Congress only to tweak what were then called the Articles of Confederation. And once they decided that they would consider an entirely different form of government, it really was an illicit meeting in a good cause, but still an illicit meeting.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Do you think had the discussion taken place out in the open it would have altered our national trajectory and essentially our identity?

MARY GRAHAM: You know, the consensus of historians seems to be that it would not have resulted in an agreement on a constitution if the process had been open.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Even George Washington, a champion of government transparency, suffered his greatest political crisis as president, when he hid the terms of a treaty with Britain.

One of the best kept presidential secrets in U.S. history occurred in 1919, when president Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke.

MARY GRAHAM: It would never happen now, what happened with Wilson, which was he was able to keep an incapacitating stroke secret for a year-and-a-half. But during much of that time, he was still quite weak but what became the biggest problem for the country is that he became irrational.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But Graham says, it wasn’t until the Cold War, that secrecy became institutionalized. As she tells it, Harry Truman’s creation of the Central Intelligence Agency originated simply with a quest for a convenient delivery of information.

MARY GRAHAM: On his desk every morning, there were stacks and stacks of military cables, which was the best effort at the time to give him information about what was going on in the world. But he found them very frustrating. So what he asked an aide to do which seemed very simple at the time was just to form a small group in the White House that would digest those cables and give him a few type-written pages every morning telling him what was the important intelligence. And so he borrowed 15 employees from elsewhere in the government and he called that the Central Intelligence Group.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Less than two years later, this group, which had evolved into what is now called the Central Intelligence agency, had been granted the right to keep its spending secret and operate with little oversight.

MARY GRAHAM: As Harry Truman said later, it was never supposed to be a cloak and dagger operation. They were just supposed to gather intelligence. So they were gathering intelligence. But from a very early stage, they were also conducting these covert operations that involved bribing foreign officials. Later on by the ’60s, it involved assassination plots and surveillance of Americans, even though it was not, the C.I.A. was not supposed to be in that business.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: With Vietnam and Watergate, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had two of the more notably secretive administrations.

Ironically, as a senator, Johnson fought for increased presidential transparency. But in the White House, he worked to water down the bill that became the Freedom of Information Act, which gives journalists and the public greater access to government documents.

And while Nixon’s back channel negotiations led to normalizing U.S. relations with China, the revelation of his secret tape recordings discussing the Watergate break-in forced him to resign.

This was all before 24-7 cable news, the internet, and social media ….A constant part of a 21st century presidency.

It seems nearly every, single day there’s a new revelation that’s come via an anonymous source or a leak.

MARY GRAHAM: So every president gets mad about leaks. President Obama was mad about leaks. President Bush was mad about leaks. George Washington was mad about leaks. There’s one thing to remember about leaks, and that is leakers only have power if the president gives them power. The president can stop leaks in a nanosecond by simply disclosing information.