Amidst swirling discontent and suspicions regarding our government's wartime activities (torture, unlawful imprisonment, needless civilian casualties, misinformation, etc.), Peter Galison and Robb Moss could easily have presented a much less even-handed–and thereby less effective–account of the U.S. military and intelligence industries' concealment of information. Secrecy mixes point-counterpoints from government bigwigs and various watchdogs (think tanks, journalists, lawyers) and an historical inquiry into the 1952 plane crash that set a false precedent for unilateral government immunity in cases involving sensitive secret information.
Being a film essentially on government and media policy, there's little pertinent archival footage or room for stylish digressions. Accordingly, a series of black-and-white animated interjections by Ruth Lingford add pleasant flurries of dark expressionism to a film so rooted in the dry reality of courtrooms and classified documents. Galison and Moss make great use of these animations–welcome breaks in a film that consists of 99 percent talking heads–and also maximize the rhetorical power of complete silence.
Blank pauses after certain sections let the weight of a statement develop or allow back-logged streams of facts through our overwhelmed brains. As one interviewee notes, for instance, the U.S. government recently spent over $7 billion dollars in one year on matters of secrecy, a budget comparable to an entire cabinet department. We, in essence, have a department of government secrets that (fittingly) we don't know about. Cut to black, pause, contemplate... How Cold War!
Indeed, throughout Secrecy the current degree of information control around terrorism and Gulf War II is compared to similar activities during the Cold War. The parallel is drawn for contrast not similarity though, as former head of the Information Security Oversight Office Steve Garfinkel remembers: "We have lost that... the comfort zone of the Cold War."; In a time when there's endless information to process and innumerable parties to track, easily drawn lines between us and them seem so deceptively simple.
This is not a simple issue, however, and Secrecy's strength is in laying out opinions from all over the political spectrum and not positing a clear solution. That said, Tom Blanton of George Washington University's National Security Archive does come off better than others, musing in his cheerful drawl that "in the dark, you can get as lost as the people you're trying to hide things from."
Disastrous instances of leaked information make clear that total transparency is not the answer, while unchecked concealment of information is, as one interviewee notes, "profoundly un-American." Rhetorically sound and powerful, Secrecy makes clear that a secretive government (as ours is, more than ever) needs to be held responsible by someone. As another interviewee concludes grimly, "when things are secret, we don't have to be responsible."