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It is often observed that President Obama’s administration has prosecuted more “whistleblowers” than all previous American governments combined. Governments now invest vast resources in protecting secrets and in the USA the annual cost of classification is estimated at $11 billion (Shane 2011). This fellowship will explore the new politics of the "technologically enabled whistle-blower". In the “twitter age”, security no longer belongs to a few specialised government agencies and is now dispersed throughout government, including local government and across business sub-contractors. Whistle-blowers have thrived amid the new connected security, making state secrecy increasingly permeable. Accordingly, over the last decade, the business of “whistle-blowing” has become an electronic battlefield, with governments seeking technical fixes to protect secrecy, while campaign groups seek to provide better “whistle-blower” protection. Moreover, the term ‘whistleblower’ itself has become hotly contested, with competing legal and moral definitions. This fellowship seeks to undertake a major monograph for Yale University Press that will explore this is exciting new landscape.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden leaked remarkable details of several highly classified US/UK mass surveillance programmes to the Washington Post and the Guardian, sparking an international furore. Snowden was vilified and applauded and vilified in equal measure., regarded as a true whistleblower by some but a dangerous renegade by others. Officials in London and Washington regard these latest disclosures as the most serious breach in government security for several decades. The programmes revealed by Snowden, such as PRISM and TEMPORA, are examples of what David Pozen has described as ‘Deep Secrets’ – secrets that, hitherto, ‘we [society] do not know that we do not know’ (Pozen 2010). The media have framed this episode around surveillance and civil liberties, focusing upon ‘the end of privacy’. Certainly, there has been a degree of moral panic with governments allegedly able to monitor every aspect of our digital lives. However, it is the contention of this fellowship proposal that the nature of privacy has in fact changed relatively little over the last decade and instead these developments denote a ‘crisis of secrecy’. The real issue is not government looking at us - but us looking at government.

Information and Communications Technology is central to this process. More than ten official whistle-blowers have come to public attention in the last decade beginning with the GCHQ employee Katherine Gun in 2003. However, since 2010, websites such as WikiLeaks have deployed anonymising software to allow officials to release very large collections of documents, in collaboration with several mainstream newspapers. In November 2010, the website leaked more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables, exposing the frank views of officials on a wide range of current international issues. Running parallel to this, intelligence agencies and their alumni now use social media. The CIA’s has a twitter account, whilst the first instinct of torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, upon completing his 30-month prison sentence, was to tell the world, in no more than 140 characters, that he was ‘free, free at last’. As Heather Brooke, the journalist who exposed the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, has appositely observed in the wake of this – ‘the data deluge is coming’ (Brooke 2010).

Accordingly, the proposed fellowship aims to interrogate the nature of state secrecy in the US and UK in the early twenty-first century. In particular, it seeks to discover how disaffected government employees and contractors are using new technology to challenge secrecy and how officials are responding to the present crisis of secrecy. Are we on the brink of what David Brin (1991) described as “The Transparent Society” in which it will be increasingly difficult for governments to safeguard classified information, including their ‘deep secrets’? In the 1970s, Daniel Ellsberg required twenty-four hour access to photocopiers in order to leak the “Pentagon Papers” on the Vietnam War - but now disgruntled officials can release entire archives of secret material with a pen drive.

Perhaps the most substantial challenge that government now confronts is a cultural one a round new forms of oversight and accountability. Internet activists and digital whistle-blowers claim that their purpose is a new form of horizontal regulation secured through the democratization of information. In the “twitter age”, the use of blogs and social networks are allowing journalists to mount lengthy investigations that rival those of elected bodies. Deep investigation of government security activity may be passing from formally constituted commissions and committees towards a version of global civil society, characterised by NGOs, civil rights lawyers, journalists and regional bodies such as the Council of Europe.

There are attendant regulatory questions for parliaments and assemblies. Both the United States and Europe are investigating “Whistle-blower Protection”, raising important normative issues around where the line should be drawn between the public right to know and the right of civil servants to offer confidential advice to ministers. Snowden has placed officials in Whitehall and Washington on notice, and new conventions around what remains of secrecy will need to be put in place.

There is remarkably little research on the decline of state secrecy. Social scientists have instead tended to focus on the “death of privacy”, new surveillance technologies and their impact upon ordinary members of the public. This vast body of research is almost exclusively framed in terms of a mapping of dystopian effects upon a wider society - or else in terms of ethical reflections. Meanwhile, we know very little about how security elites or their opponents conceive of either secrecy or its erosion. Retired intelligence officers, especially former heads of agencies, will sometimes give sound bites to the media, but their punditry is typically out of step or exaggerated ‘for the camera’ and should not be taken as representative of real-time attitudes or policies within the agencies themselves. Partly as a result of recent interest in the social construction of security, there has been a growing tendency within the social sciences to focus on wider public discourse. The only exception is perhaps economists who have begun to model the transaction costs of secrecy within both liberal and planned economies.

The conceptual underpinnings for this proposal are drawn from the ideas of Carl Schmitt who argues that in the modern age, the political secret has acquired a sinister reputation. Secrecy is often interpreted by modern political theorists as providing a discretionary space of action exempt from the rule of law, and opaque to the cleansing effect of the democratic scrutiny. While secrecy serves to protect and stabilize the state, its can also facilitate a space of exception from the rule of law that can lead to corruption and abuse of power. As Horn has argued, while secrecy is not always the direct opposite of a political culture of transparency, it is marked by the profound paradox of being both a consolidation of the democratic state and also a potential threat to democratic governance.

There is much controversy here and some of the most basic assertions and definitions around secrecy are contested. Journalists complain that breaches in the wall of state secrecy are sporadic and the general public's experience of “Freedom of Information” is often reported as a denial of reasonable requests for basic government information. Meanwhile, officials energetically point to the way in which transparency can derail unfettered damage a decision-making processes – the much-feared “government in a goldfish bowl” – and complain about transparency's enormous compliance costs.

While this fellowship proposal is primarily an empirical study routed in an anatomy of government behaviour rather than political theory or ethics, it nevertheless builds on this idea of a modern paradox of secrecy and considers the wider conceptual landscape of government secrecy in three ways:

First: it considers the idea that government itself has radically undermined a central pillar of secrecy. The 9/11 attacks were followed by a cultural shift across the anglospheric intelligence community from “Need to Know” to “Need to Share”. Global terrorism and global organised crime increasingly lived in the seams of national jurisdictions (or ‘in the shadows’, to quote Dame Judi Dench’s “M” in the latest Bond film Skyfall) and and therefore required greater cross-governmental connectivity. The - the maxim of the day was: ‘Play well with others’. Some have argued that intelligence inter-activity went too far, the result being that security clearances were given to excessive numbers of people. Both Manning, a lowly Private First Class, barely into his twenties, and Snowden, a temporary contractor also in his twenties, had access to hundreds of thousands of documents from highly-classified servers and are testament to a new generation of public servants who regard intelligence work as a job, just like any other, not a career and certainly not a ‘calling’. This proposal therefore considers the nature of internal boundaries within government and also boundaries between the security agencies and their burgeoning army of logistical and technology contractors in the private sector.

Second: it seeks to examine government efforts to undertake a forward or offensive strategy of information control. Beginning with Gill in 1996, a number of authors have postulated a new information management strategy whereby control is presented as greater openness and security agencies offset damaging leaks by accelerating their own efforts in the realm of public relations (Gill 1996, Aldrich 2009, Moran 2013). Detecting a shift from ‘secrecy to spin’, Ssome argue that this has been exemplified by the recent authorised histories of the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), penned by Christopher Andrew and Keith Jeffery respectively (Andrew 2009; Jeffery 2009). Interestingly, Iin April 2014, the UK government announced the appointment of an official with a background in public relations as the new head of GCHQ. We need to develop a new conceptual framework around government attempts to manage public expectations in terms of declassification and openness.

Third: I am keen to consider what the emergence of public oversight might mean for journalists, NGOs and the Third Sector. Large scale datasets in a publicly available form – often mediated via think tanks and pressure groups – have revolutionised oversight of the National Health Service to the obvious consternation of its managers. To what extent are we moving to a similar system of accountability for the national security state? Both the Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg and senior members of the judiciary have called for a widening and a “flattening” of the system of accountability for the UK intelligence and security community to embrace academics, lawyers, NGOs and specialist journalists. To what extent are whistle-blowers and journalists creating a new system of oversight that operates transnationally, challenging the parliamentary committees and congressional bodies set up in the last century? This connects with controversial data-driven news projects within the newsroom and the rise of “programmer-journalists” armed with new technical skills that mirror those of the state as a new manifestation of the reverse gaze.


* How are elite groups in the UK and US conceptualising state secrecy in the context of new “whistle-blowing” technologies that anonymise large flows of security information?

Q 1. How do UK and US officials conceptualise the current crisis of state secrecy?
Q 2. How do different elite groups in the UK and the US think about the impact of new technologies upon secrecy?
Q 3. How far is the current climate of declining secrecy generating new forms of oversight and accountability for national security agencies?

Q 4. How have disaffected officials used new technologies to challenge secrecy?
Q 5. Which institutions and actors lead in addressing the threats and risks associated with leakers and what are their strategies?
Q 6. In what ways have the actors and institutions involved in constructing secrecy sought to create a forward strategy of information management?

Q 7. How do UK and US approaches to secrecy compare?
Q 8. Is the Transatlantic approach to secrecy coordinated and coherent?
Q 9. Can a system of security governance for secrecy become both more resilient and effective and at the same time more responsive and inclusive?

Current government attempts to repair systems of secrecy cannot be fully understood or explained without connecting them to complex strategies that involve the media, public-private partnerships, and the interconnected global media context within which challenges are evolving. Nevertheless, these strategies are ultimately an extension of the national security state and as such this project has been designed as a small-N country comparison. The benefits of selecting the UK and the USA lie in their relative similarities. Some of the research design problems lurk in the extent to which these countries have cooperated on strategies of secrecy, making straightforward comparison more complex.



‘Grey is the New Black: Covert Action and the Rise of Implausible Deniability’, International Affairs, with Rory Cormac. Vol.94: No.3 (2018).  

Secrets, Hostages and Ransoms: British Kidnap Policy in Historical Perspective’, Review of International Studies, with Lewis Herrington. Volume 44, Issue 4 October 2018 , pp. 738-759  

”Delayed Disclosure”: Whistle-blowers, National Security and the Nature of State Secrecy’, with Christopher Moran, Political Studies, 2018.  

Ambient Accountability: Intelligence Services in Europe and the Decline of Secrecy’, West European Politics, Vol.41, No.4 (2018): 1003-24, with Daniela Richterova.  

Trump and the CIA: Borrowing From Nixon’s Playbook’, Foreign Affairs, April 2017, with Christopher Moran.