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(Psst ... Over Here!)

Senator Moynihan argues that the United States is obsessed with secrecy - to its own detriment.

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THE SECRECY: THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

By Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Yale University Press

320 pp., $22.50

Once again, we can be grateful to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for encouraging us to step back and look at one of the deeper issues confronting our nation. The senator is one of those exceptional individuals who deals with the myriad day-to-day issues that confront public figures, but still finds time to study dangerous trends below the surface. The excessive secrecy in our society is certainly one of those.

Many others have railed against undue secrecy in specific instances where some clear harm was being done. What Moynihan has achieved is an explanation of how secrecy has come to be a culture of its own in our government. He traces this culture back to World War I.

In the period between the outbreak of that war in 1914 and our entry into it in 1917, the country developed a near hysteria about potential sabotage by Germans. During that time, the FBI placed my own great-grandfather, who was born in Austria, under surveillance during a visit to Niagara Falls. Supposedly, the FBI was worried about his sabotaging power-generating facilities there.

It was the Espionage Act of 1917 that first legislated against sabotage, including disclosing the nation's secrets. Moynihan astutely describes how our bureaucracies quickly learned that having information that others want is a source of power. The senator enlivens his book with fascinating historical examples of how the thirst for secrecy is seemingly insatiable.

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