Secret foreign policy is bad for democracy: and bad foreign policy is just plain bad.

Author:Doherty, Brian
Position:Book review

Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America's Stealth Warfare, by Scott Horton, Nation Books, 260 pages, $26.99

AFTER 9/11, a con man named Dennis Montgomery convinced the feds that he was a software genius. His techniques, he told them, could reveal secret coded Al Qaeda messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts and positively identify specific terrorists from drone video. The New York Times report ed in 2011 that Montgomery's lies "prompted an international false alarm th at led President George W. Bush to order airliners to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean in 2003." And it looks like the feds paid handsomely for this misinformation. Montgomery's work for the government fell under contracts with the classified CIA Directorate of Science and Technology, but he claimed to have received a $30 million payout on just one contract. And he certainly spent money like he was an otherwise inexplicably wealthy man, including driving expensive Porsches and dropping nearly half a million in one day of gambling.

The government would prefer you never knew about any of th at. When Montgomery was being sued by a former employer, then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte quashed any public court discussion of Montgomery's bizarre relationship with U.S. intelligence. He insisted that public revelations about how easily the country's protectors can be conned would constitute "serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage to the national security of the United States."

Democracy is supposed to transmit the people's will to our governors, but it's hard to argue that's the case when said governors can keep us ignorant about what they're doing and what it costs. However, the U.S. government has become increasingly adept at waving the flags of democracy and national security simultaneously.

The journalist and activist Scott Horton explores the tension between those two realities in Lords of Secrecy. The title is Horton's term for the mostly unelected elites who run the country's foreign-policy, espionage, and war-making machines.

The book delivers far more theory than specifics of secret foreign policy practice--disappointing in the wake of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's National Security Agency revelations. Horton indulges in more academic speculations about the Athenian conception of democracy than his task requires, and less in the way of details about actual secretive doings (though he does relate a decent quick version of the...

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