Full disclosure

Pub date October 22, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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"If you wouldn’t tell Stalin, don’t tell anyone." This billboard message casts us back to the New Mexico desert, where a mushroom cloud’s worth of paranoia ushered in the modern era of government secrecy. Harvard professors Peter Galison and Robb Moss base their guide to this dark world on interviews with former "secureaucrats" and watchdog lawyers, journalists and scholars. But even without a voice-over, Secrecy‘s editorial threads are clear. There is the B-roll of the pilot carrying that test atomic bomb, for example, fading to black for a muffled explosion before fading back in to a Google Earth image of Manhattan, stained with the debris of the 9/11 attacks. One clandestine mission gives way to another, and a new veil of secrecy spreads with the smoke.

Even as Secrecy‘s former operatives acknowledge the massive intelligence failures leading to 9/11, they’re ready to make the case for the increased need for government subterfuge in the War on Terror: what secrecy begets, only secrecy will solve, and every time the gloves come off, the blinders will go on. Against this tide of Cold War nostalgists, the doubters hardly need sound conspiratorial with 60 years of government abuses at their fingertips. Indeed, the legal precedent for the State Secrets Privilege itself hinges on a bogus case involving a mysterious B-29 accident — 50 years later, it was finally proven that the executive branch went to the Supreme Court not to protect military secrets, but to facilitate a cover-up of Air Force negligence.

Washington Post writer Barton Gellman rightly wonders whether anyone exclusively dedicated to maintaining secrecy is in a good position to judge what they’re defending. The Bush administration, of course, sacrificed this benefit of the doubt years ago. The State Secrets Privilege cannot be invoked as a cover for criminality, but with an executive branch that reserves the right to define the terms of criminality and confidentiality away from the prying eyes of Congress and the judiciary, there’s not much of a chance for checks, let alone balances. As Navy officer and Guantánamo lawyer Charles Swift puts it, "If I can execute you and don’t have to tell anyone why, what’s left?"

The NSA/CIA reps’ telescopic counterargument — that leaks disrupt the gathering of intelligence — hardly justifies these Constitutional affronts, but Galison and Moss still give the press too much of a free ride in Secrecy. Shit slides both ways in this Foucaultian tug of knowledge and power. Those Ari Fleischer press conference replays are only the tip of the iceberg of a culture of credulity and outright fabrication.

There are deeper problems still with Secrecy, starting with the lack of interviews with Pynchonian Web crawlers at the vanguard of the information liberation movement. The filmmakers refer to the paradoxical expansion of access and restriction with a few snippets of local maverick artist-muckraker Trevor Paglen’s work and a Google Earth shot of Guantánamo Bay, blacked out just like the sensitive documents of old, but one wants more on the subject. Perhaps more to the point, Moss and Galison do not always come up with satisfying solutions to the problem of how to visually represent a subject that is, by definition, obscure. The filler animations, X-Files-style soundtrack and surrealist cutaways to flurries of redacted documents in Secrecy are cold leftovers of the Errol Morris school of documentary.

If I’m being hard on Moss and Galison, it’s only because so much of the raw interview material is compelling on its own. The information-crusaders, in particular, are natural documentary heroes. Their quest for transparency dovetails perfectly with the moral imperative and epistemological pleasure of the best documentaries. See Secrecy for them — make it a double-feature with Burn After Reading, and you’ve got a swell kiss-off to the worst intelligence money can buy. *


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