Movie Review

Where does necessary secrecy end?

'Secrecy' The documentary is framed as a debate between governmental secrecy and the fighters for the release of information. (Redacted Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 19, 2008
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"Secrecy" is about just that - the modern history of nondisclosure in American intelligence, the public's need to know, the government's national interest in keeping its doings to itself. The documentary is framed as a debate, and directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss keep it divided almost evenly between fighters for the release of information (journalists, academics, etc.) and the intelligence folks who think that would compromise national security.

With the exception of an attorney or two, the participants are dug in firmly on their stances. The movie patiently cuts between them, but there's no rabid free-for-all. This is informed discourse, not ideological foaming at the mouth. It's a fair strategy, but it produces an answer I could have guessed before seeing the movie: Some secrets are bad (cover-ups, out-and-out lies). Other secrets might be necessary (for CIA field agents, say).

It's the gray areas that warrant exploration. And Galison and Moss, both Harvard professors, try to do just that. How much government transparency is too much? When is more actually needed? The film considers the case that resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling on what counts as a state secret. Thanks to the ruling, other cases can be decided without crucial information that, the government contends, might weaken national security if revealed in a court.

Galison and Moss are working loosely in the Errol Morris mode - a looping, mischievous score; archival footage sculpted into ominous montage; the eerie implication of conspiracy. But "Secrecy" doesn't get as far beneath the skin as a Morris film can. Government secrecy is a bottomless subject, and the movie needs a director with a narrowed vision to create dramatic minimalism. Galison and Moss can't quite get their arms - or our brains - around their topic. Every answer raises a new question.

Steven Aftergood, of the Project on Government Secrecy, tells us that tens of thousands of new secrets are created every day and that the financial cost of secrecy grew by a billion dollars to an "unprecedented" $7.5 billion in a single year. That, he says, is equivalent to the budget of a cabinet-level government agency: "It's as if we have a department of government secrecy." Where does he get that number? Why is it so high? And how do you even quantify such a thing?

This, of course, is the trouble with a documentary about secrecy. It's abstract, and the film treats it literarily, occupationally, and as a tremendous legal problem. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, pontificates about how secrets are seductive for both the government and the citizenry. He goes on to compare the need to know to Norman Bates's voyeurism and curiosity about what your parents do in their bedroom. Actually that sounds to me like an argument for secrecy.

On the other side, there's Melissa Boyle Mahle, a former CIA agent, who seems to get a kick out of the double life she's led even as she admits that it's affected her family and friends. Discussing the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Mahle says she was appalled - but not for everyone else's dumb old moral reasons. She was upset that Americans were torturing Iraqis for non-interrogation purposes: "That is a crime."

After a while, a different, more fascinating movie pokes through all the dutiful investigating. This one is not about secrecy per se, but about the strangely compelling people who fight for or against it.


Directed by: Peter Galison and Robb Moss

At: The Brattle

Running time: 81 minutes


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