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by Mel Valentin

"A must-see documentary for every civic-minded American."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, "Secrecy" explores an often dense, complex subject, government secrecy, ostensibly for national security reasons. Relying primarily on talking-head interviews mixed in with archival footage and animated illustrations, Galison and Moss trace the history of government secrecy, beginning in World II with the Manhattan Project and jumping forward more than a half a century later to explore the ramifications of new secrecy laws and practices instituted in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Galison and Moss offer a balanced, nuanced approach that eschews polemics or grandstanding and gives different viewpoints the opportunity to be heard and understood while inevitably suggesting that the trade off between security and privacy, between executive power and constitutional liberties has tipped too far in favor of executive power.

For Secrecy, Galison and Moss pulled together a stellar group of interviewees, each with their own unique perspective, including Mike Levin, a retired National Security Agency (NSA) official who served from 1947 through 1993, Tom Blanton, National Security Archives, George Washington University, Melissa Boyle Mahle, the former Chief of Base, Jerusalem, CIA (1988-2000), James B. Bruce, Senior Executive Office, CIA (1981-2005), Barton Gellman, a journalist with the Washington Post who reported on the absence of WMDs in post-invasion Iraq, Charles Swift, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) in the U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate General's Corps, Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law, and, most famously, defense counsel for Salim Ahmed Hamden, and Neal Kaytal, a Georgetown Law Professor who argued the Hamden case before the United States Supreme Court. Kaytal and Swift won their case.

Galison and Moss open Secrecy by reminding moviegoers (assuming they’re familiar with U.S. history) of the intelligence failures that could have prevented the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December, 7, 1941. In that case, the problem wasn’t intelligence or information, but collecting, analyzing, and interpreting that intelligence. From that major intelligence failure, President Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency after the end of World War II. The Cold War placed a premium on collecting information about the Soviet Union, but, if the CIA agents and officers interviewed by Galison and Moss are to be believed, the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union apparently left the CIA incapable of responding to newer, trans-national threats (i.e., stateless terrorists like Osama bin-laden). The question then and now was (and is) how much information should be kept secret, who, within and outside the executive branch, needs to know this information, and how best to respond to this intelligence.

A clear contrast soon emerges between the CIA agents and officers, with Levin and Mahle the most vocal and articulate and Blanton and Gellman on the other. Levin cites a press leak in 1983 that left the CIA unable to track down the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon (weeks later they attacked a U.S. marines barracks, killing 241 soldiers). Gellman cites the abuses at Guantanomo Bay, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and the reporting on the never-found WMDs as a necessary counterweight to unchecked government power. Levin’s point, however, goes only to information that might stop a terrorist attack (as the 1998 leak about Osama bin-laden using satellite phones might have been) rather than government abuses or lies that should be exposed, investigated, and, if necessary, prosecuted. In the latter case, the executive branch’s onerous classification system might have been (and continues to be) used to hinder investigations into those abuses.

While both Mahle and Blanton agree on the need for a classification system (i.e., for government secrecy), Mahle falls on the right side of the ideological divide in describing the need to need safeguard the American public from terrorist threats, both in how she described that threat as existential (as if the Cold War wasn’t) and in her use of language that seemingly supports torture or other harsh interrogation techniques to extract information from suspected terrorists. While Mahle never invokes the right’s example of the “ticking time bomb” to excuse torture, she seems to think it’s necessary as long as accuracy and veracity can be confirmed (unlikely where torture is used). Mahle repeatedly suggests the need to trade secrecy for security, but is often frustratingly vague in how far she’s willing to go and under what circumstances.

Blanton clearly enunciates an analysis that looks less at results than at processes. For Blanton, the highly structured, closed classification system created and perpetuated over the last fifty years does more harm than good. With an emphasis on secrets and gate keeping, the current system limits the possibility of serendipity and creativity in analyzing problems, some of which may require information unavailable to a particular analyst. Worse, the current system creates bureaucratic turf wars that again do more harm than good. Blanton doesn’t suggest abolishing the current system, but he’s certainly in favor of reforming it toward more openness, an openness that reflects the Information Age and distributed networks and distributed information.

Galison and Moss also interviewed Patricia Reynolds Herring and Judy Loether, the survivors of two men who died in B-29 crash in 1948. At the time, the government refused to share the accident report with the families of the dead men. During the lawsuit that followed, the government claimed and eventually won, the ability to bar the disclosure of information via the "state's secrets" doctrine. This doctrine became a catchall excuse for limiting or completely eliminating the use of government documents in civil or criminal proceedings. All a government official had to do was present a judge with an affidavit swearing that releasing the requested documents would injure the national interest. Under this doctrine, the judge took the government at their word, not even reviewing the documents “in camera” (i.e., outside a courtroom in a secure location) to confirm the veracity of the government’s affidavit.

At less than ninety minutes, "Secrecy" covers a lot of ground quickly, often too quickly. A more expansive, in-depth look, including a firmer grounding in the history of the Cold War through the present day could have only helped moviegoers unfamiliar with American political history to better understand, appreciate, and analyze the statements made by Galison and Moss’ parade of experts. To do all that, Galison and Moss would have needed a longer running time, sometime they obviously wanted to avoid, but should consider for the inevitable DVD release where additional material, from interviews or other source material, could and will deepen understanding of one of the vital issues facing our democracy.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16963&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/10/08 17:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 29-Sep-2009


  DVD: 29-Sep-2009

Directed by
  Peter Galison
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