Secrecy (documentary)

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Government secrecy: good or bad? Whatever your gut answer is, the issue is a thorny one. “Secrecy,” a sharply produced, thought-provoking documentary by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, presents talking heads who make compelling arguments on both sides.

You say the government goes overboard with the secrecy? Consider this: In 1983, after word leaked that our guys were eavesdropping on terrorists via certain communications channels, the chatter stopped. Eight months later, Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut. If our tricks had remained secret, we might have known about the attack before it happened.

You say the government must often operate in secret in order to protect us? Consider this: We had information on some of the 9/11 perpetrators before the attacks — but the intel was so highly classified that the people who could have done something with it didn’t have access to it.

Then again, at one point we were monitoring Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone … until that fact leaked to the press, at which point Bin Laden quite understandably stopped using his satellite phone.

Then again, the government has been known to use the “It’s a secret! We can’t tell you!” excuse as a cover when it botches something and doesn’t want to admit it. Case in point: an Air Force plane crash in Waycross, Ga., in 1948 that killed three civilians. The Air Force avoided a lawsuit by claiming it couldn’t release the flight records because they contained “state secrets.” The eventual unsealing of the records, decades later, showed that they contained nothing of the kind, and that the crash was the result of Air Force negligence — which was the real secret the military was trying to keep hidden.

See? Thorny.

A fiery documentary could be made promoting either point of view, and while some may take “Secrecy” to task for not being forceful enough, I like that it remains, if not quite neutral, certainly evenhanded. Inevitably, the focus turns to the George W. Bush administration’s obsession with secrecy, and there too many of the facts are too damning to permit fence-sitting. As one interviewee puts it, “The idea that the president and the president alone can decide what we’re allowed to know is profoundly un-American.”

Galison and Moss interview quite a few notable figures, including former CIA executive director James Bruce, NSA official Mike Levin, and former CIA Jerusalem bureau head Melissa Boyle Mahle. The latter expresses the most interesting point of view, and the one that probably reflects most viewers’ thoughts: She believes secrecy and openness are both important, depending on the situation. She freely admits that secrecy allows the government to do certain necessary things that the public would find distasteful if it knew about them. On the other hand, if an organization operates in darkness too much of the time, it can become a creature of darkness itself. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are filled with evidence of that.

The directors go a little off track here and there, notably with Mahle’s comments about how working for a secretive organization like the CIA can mess up your personal life, which is undoubtedly true but also undoubtedly irrelevant to the matter at hand. But most of what’s included in “Secrecy” is intelligent and eye-opening, with enough historical facts and well-formed opinions to fuel hours of post-movie conversation.

B+ (1 hr., 26 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for a few violent images.)