Austin Carson
Big Brains podcst

When Governments Share Their Secrets—And When They Don't, with Austin Carson (Ep. 57)

Scholar discusses the political theater of foreign policy—and the case for declassifying intelligence

Austin Carson
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

When should a government choose to reveal a secret—or conceal it? Your knee-jerk reaction may be to say they should never hide anything from the public. But political scientist Austin Carson of the University of Chicago says his research complicates that answer.

Carson has spent his career reading massive amounts of declassified material. What he’s found shows how governments can use secrecy to deescalate conflicts and maintain peace. But he says balancing this utility of secrecy with democracy is incredibly important.

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(Episode published October 28, 2020)



Paul Rand: Think back to the United States in February 2003.

Tape: Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources.

Paul Rand: It was the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, addressed the United Nations Security Council.

Tape: What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

Paul Rand: Powell was there to lay out what he claimed was the case for war.

Tape: The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.

Paul Rand: He showed satellite images, played audio recordings and shared intelligence data.

Tape: This is evidence not conjecture. This is true.

Paul Rand: Of course, we would find out just a year and a half later, that much of this was just not true.

Austin Carson: To me, it was the distillation of how this secret information becomes part of a kind of theater, it becomes part of a performance, and power literally was performing.

Paul Rand: That’s Austin Carson. In 2003, he was working as a research analyst at a national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He remembers watching that speech, and what really struck him was Powell’s presentation.

Austin Carson: He had a script and he had a presentation, he had a dozen staff members, but it really just encapsulated that idea of sort of like the theater and a performance in the way secrets and intelligence play a role in that.

Paul Rand: Today, Carson is a professor at the University of Chicago, where he studies secrecy, intelligence and its role in international politics. His research reveals how a complex web of political theater, both behind and in front of the curtain dictates which secrets governments choose to reveal or conceal.

Austin Carson: The motivation for all of our research is a question that I still can’t fully answer and still have not figured out, which is how to balance democracy and the utility of secrecy in foreign policy.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, The Politics of Secrecy. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: When does a government choose to reveal a secret or conceal one? This is a key question in Austin Carson’s research. He presents two theories, two sides of the same coin. One, keeping secrets is a useful way to limit the scope and scale of a conflict. Two, revealing secrets is a useful way to control public optics.

Austin Carson: Governments just like people in everyday life care about the impression they’re making and that this practice of revealing certain things or keeping things secret is part of a fairly well-tuned system for managing and molding how people perceive what governments are up to. You don’t have to put on the tinfoil hat and think that governments are doing this to pull one over our eyes or something.

Paul Rand: I wonder if we could talk a little bit more. When we talk about secrets, what are we talking about? Is it spies? Is it covert military operations? What constitutes a secret?

Austin Carson: Generally, I use a pretty everyday definition of what secrets are, which is intentional concealment from one or more audiences. It includes the process of intelligence collection, espionage, which can include the James Bond spies.

Tape: Bond, James Bond.

Austin Carson: But also technical systems such as overhead imagery that’s collected by satellite or something. But other elements of secrecy are covert forms of state behavior. This might be covert activity during a war. This might be a covert attempt to coordinate with, or execute a regime change operation, but it can also include things like the secrecy that surrounds peace negotiations that may be a really essential to reaching an agreement to end war.

Austin Carson: Governments do all kinds of things. They engage in trade negotiations in secret, and those may be made publicly available, or at least the agreements they reach. Secrecy, it sort of has manifestations I think, across the gamut of international politics oftentimes.

Paul Rand: This dynamic creates what Carson calls the front stage and the backstage of international secrets. He says, we should think of it like a theater.

Austin Carson: The front stage in my version of this analogy is it refers to the opposite of secrecy, things that are publicly visible. So what you do on the front stage is visible to any person in the audience, so any possible witnessing group in international politics.

Paul Rand: On the backstage are the actors, or the governments, and all have secrets and are running past each other to put on the show.

Austin Carson: The backstage is interesting precisely because other actors know what their counterparts are doing on the backstage, even as the audience doesn’t know. And in fact, some of the work I’ve done has interrogated that assumption to the extent of saying, “Sometimes governments want to have other governments know what they’re doing covertly or secretly.” That’s part of the point. I’ve even found discussions of, “Hey, we should do this covert harassment operation against North Vietnam during the Vietnam war, because we want them to think that we might do even more.” They want them to detect it. They don’t want to do it openly because that would be a much larger incident, but they’re quite happy with the other side understanding the gist of what they’re doing.

Paul Rand: This is a crucial piece of Carson’s research. The things that are secrets to us are often not secret between governments. One example he lays out in his book is Soviet involvement in the Korean War when the communist North Korea invaded South Korea.

Tape: On Sunday, June 25th, communist forces attacked the Republic of Korea. This attack has made it clear beyond all doubt that the international communist movement is willing to use arm invasion to conquer independent nations.

Austin Carson: For decades we had been told that the war was not fought directly between the U.S. and Soviet Union; the Soviet Union helped its Chinese and North Korean allies, but didn’t participate in the war.

Tape: A free nation faced a worldwide threat. It must be met with a worldwide defense.

Austin Carson: But then after the end of the Cold War, declassification of American records and interviews with some aging Soviet veterans made it clear that they did covertly participate in the air war. It’s not like the U.S. and the Soviets sat down and said, “OK, let’s keep this secret from everyone.” But at a tacit level, the Soviets did it secretly, and the Americans had their own reasons to keep it secret. Neither side ended up advertising or going public with the fact that their pilots were shooting one another down over the skies of North Korea.

Austin Carson: There are some declassified materials I read, which discussed this in detail, which suggested that the United States very much cared about where the Soviet Union was flying those flights. It was tolerable for the Soviets to fly flights that didn’t harm the American position on the war, but kept the North Koreans from losing the war. And so we can imagine in a counterfactual world where the Soviet Union got a little too greedy and said, “OK, we’re not just going to fly flights that protect our North Korean ally, but we’re actually going to go fly flights and harm American troops behind their front lines.” That the United States may well have said, “OK, you know what? This is intolerable. We’re going to publicize this as a way to let the Soviets know we’re not cool with it, as a way to gin up a domestic and international sympathy, for taking action against the Soviets.”

Austin Carson: What I like to think is that there is this equilibrium where both sides in this conflict can value secrecy and can tacitly or explicitly work together to keep it that way. But if either side kind of goes a little too far and takes too much advantage of that, then I think that shared interests can break down and you can get things splashed onto the front page of the New York Times.

Paul Rand: So there’s a lot more coordination on some of the secrecy keeping than you would actually think is actually going on and they’re doing it to allow conflicts to deescalate?

Austin Carson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s versions of this, and part of my intuition was supported by knowing that there’s a lot of live and let live and sort of tacit forms of coordination in the espionage world too. So peacetime time espionage, let’s think about the Americans, the FX series, how many Soviet spies are in the United States and how many American spies are in the Soviet Union? Well, those things are tracked very carefully by the counter-intelligence agencies of each country, but there’s a certain degree to which if you start publicizing who is a spy in your country or expelling them from your territory, or just revealing who they are, well, guess what the other side’s going to do; they’re going to do the same thing. If you’re basically gouging each other’s eyes out, so to speak, so that what the other country is doing isn’t very visible to you, but same goes for them, you may be in a worse position than letting one another have a certain level of espionage in each country’s territory.

Austin Carson: There’s a couple of, I think, different reasons why there’s more collaboration and mutual interest in secrecy than we tend to think, which is that secrecy is a reason and a tool to gain advantage against certain rivals or adversaries or threats.

Paul Rand: We’ve been talking about some examples that are a bit more historical. Are there any that are more modern day in terms of a government keeping a secret or later coming out that listeners may be currently familiar?

Austin Carson: The big one is cyberspace. I think cyberspace is really where we see the evolution of covert side of statecraft. You could point to the Russian role in the 2016 American elections.

Paul Rand: I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

Austin Carson: Really difficult decision about when, if at all, to publicly reveal; that was something that the Obama administration in its final months really struggled with according to reports.

Paul Rand: What do you mean by that? What were they struggling with?

Austin Carson: They were struggling with the fact that publicizing it while the election was going on was a doubly complicated decision. Because number one, you had the normal strategic questions that I’ve thought a lot about and try to write about, which is well, what do you do if you accuse a foreign power of meddling in your election? Is that the crisis you want to start and how are you going to stop it? But then you also had the problem of looking like that revelation itself was a kind of October surprise meant to alter the outcome of the election in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump. There was a domestic political calculation that was pretty specific to the timing of all of that.

Austin Carson: The reporting that came out a few months after the election was that they had pretty good information on this, and ultimately they decided that through some kind of operation in cyberspace, back at Russia, as a kind of in-kind reply, which is an interesting way of thinking about how this stuff might be going on right now and what would’ve made less of an issue of it. Although it ultimately obviously became a huge issue with the election of Trump.

Paul Rand: Coming up the implications of secrecy for democracy and why Carson thinks most historical government secrets should be declassified.

Paul Rand: Austin Carson has written two books on international secrecy. He spends hours poring over declassified material, but he’s still trying to figure out the biggest question that secrecy presents.

Austin Carson: Which is how to balance democracy and the utility of secrecy in foreign policy. This is a dilemma or a trade-off that has been noted and was discussed as far back as the deliberations about the original Constitution. And then start to think through well, what are our purposes we want to say, yes, it’s okay for our government to engage in this kind of secrecy, even though it makes it very difficult for oversight by Congress or for us as members of the public to understand what’s going on, but that’s an acceptable excuse or exception to our normal expectations of democratic accountability.

Paul Rand: One of the most important factors in being able to understand what our government uses secrecy for is being able to see what has kept secret in the past. That’s why Carson thinks most secrets should at least eventually be declassified.

Austin Carson: I generally have a pretty high bar for what I think should be an excusable use of secrecy. We got to treat the American public as grownups, first of all. We can handle this and think through these issues hopefully with a richer and more complete set of information. I think my real concern, when I think about the consequences of carving exceptions to allow for secrecy for various reasons, is that whether or not the public is the motive, ultimately whatever the justification, if a kind of behavior or a decision or a fact about the world is kept secret, the public in a sense loses no matter whether or not they’re the reason for it in the first place, because we lose that ability to incorporate that information in our view of the performance of our leaders.

Austin Carson: That’s part of the reason I have a pretty high bar in my own personal opinion about what considerations, whether it’s public focused or having to do with another government, what considerations justify a departure from our normal expectation. Ultimately, it’s very difficult to go back from that. If you have an exception or an explanation for why secrecy is justified, it can be used in a variety of ways.

Austin Carson: Now one thing that I do think we haven’t talked about super explicitly is that time issue. When we’re dealing with this tension between what should be kept secret and what should be made public and the motives behind that, we always need to think about what should be kept secret now and what should be kept secret indefinitely. One of my criticisms of the current system is that I do think it tends to keep secrets far too long, and for the most part, the rationales for keeping things secret are not ones that particularly last for that long. That is a compromise, well, maybe you don’t have to make everything public, but allow things to become public relatively quickly. That shrinks that scope of abuse, because if abuse is taking place, it will be exposed and revealed relatively quickly, versus being buried in the archives for 30 years, functionally something that no one could do anything about.

Paul Rand: When the time is right, we ought to declassify this information. What’s the timing? How do you think about it? Is it five years? Is it two years? Is it 50 years?

Austin Carson: Well, your short answer is a lot sooner than it does now. Longer answer is I think this is where understanding secrecy is really important because we might want to get more nuanced than we typically might think about this. There might not be a single rule. So you might think about certain kinds of secrets that perform certain kinds of functions. Those merit being kept secret for 10 years, let’s say, whereas some other set of secrets…

Paul Rand: Give me an example of what kind of secret that might be.

Austin Carson: Let’s say there’s a peace agreement that was negotiated in 2020, and which is sort of a live issue 10 years from now. Potentially if the peace negotiation fell apart, a war would resume. Perhaps there’s parts of that peace agreement that need to be kept secret, or maybe the transcripts of the discussions back and forth that ultimately led to that agreement, which we could make a plausible case that if those were made public sooner than 10 years, there’s a plausible scenario in which those materials would actually make it harder to keep that peace agreement in place, something like that.

Austin Carson: What I see over and over again though is the second kind of secret, which is a secret that has almost no real time relevance say five, 10 years later. And any scenario that someone might explain to me, if they sat down and said, “This is why we didn’t want to release it,” would seem wildly implausible or inconvenient to a few diplomats for a few days and then move on. That to me, that’s why I have those high bars.

Austin Carson: I think most secrets, most of the time could be declassified a lot faster than they are because in practice, it ends up being difficult to get materials say, right now in 2020 for stuff that happened in the 1980s, when I was a kid, let alone the 90s or the 2000s. You can find some things and you can request some things be declassified, but those requests take a long time to process, they’re hit and miss in their success, and the bulk declassification in the American context is pretty slow, and I think that we’d be better served if it was a lot faster.

Paul Rand: In a world that we’re living in right now and you see so many instances of the current administration turning traditional norms on their head in terms of how governments interact, what’s said, what’s not said, how do you see what, if anything has changed in this current administration that may change the way governments are using secrets, working with secrets?

Austin Carson: First of all, the relationship between the Trump administration and the intelligence community is one of the most bizarre and historically unique, and from my perspective, dangerous aspects of this presidency. What that means in practice is that the conduct of secrecy within the US Government seems to have become much more precarious because you have an antagonistic relationship between the president and the intelligence community. And so you have reports of things like sensitive information of certain kinds or topics like Russia’s foreign policy generally, or its involvement in election interference, just not being given to the White House because the CIA or other agencies believes, if they’re the bearers of bad news, they’re the ones that are going to receive the brunt of the consequences.

Austin Carson: In terms of relating to other governments, you mentioned norm busting; you certainly have a White House and administration, which views its own role, if anything, as a disruptive force, rather than a force of preserving the rules and the norms and the agreements that it inherited. That’s perfectly fine. Every administration has its own foreign policy and there’s no requirement that you follow what others did in the past. But I think in terms of studying it and understanding it, what it means is that we oftentimes find the U.S. in the role of trying to understand how to make these rules, laws, and norms, enforceable, and work in a multilateral setting to do so. With this administration that just doesn’t happen very often. And if anything, they’re trying to move away from that, that style of policy. That means the use of secrecy is going to be a little bit different.

Austin Carson: The last thing I would add is just the inadvertent, or unknowing revelation of secrets to other foreign leaders or to journalists about foreign policy issues is another thing we’ve seen really affect how secrets of the secret side of international politics unfolds in the Trump administration. Those kinds of disclosures are usually ones that are very carefully evaluated and debated before they’re made, and not always the case with the kind of leadership style we have in the White House now.

Paul Rand: As you look forward coming out of this administration or seeing where it goes, do you see shifts that may be permanent that have just changed so dramatically that we’re not going to get back?

Austin Carson: It’s hard to know at this stage. But one I would point to which isn’t really a Trump White House or Trump administration specifically but it’s really accelerated, is I think a permanent feature of the future of international politics is that it is simply harder to do things in secret as a government than it used to be, and that’s accelerated in some ways in the last four years, but it was a change that was long in the making. You have at least when you’re doing some traditional things you might do secretly like a covert action, covert operation or intelligence collection even, you now have sources like commercial satellite information, cyber sleuths, crowdsourcing, trying to figure out ... if you remember back when an airliner was shot down over the Ukraine; all kinds of fascinating evidence collection and triangulation and investigation about who fired the missile and when, and where. That kind of activity I think has just led to fundamental change in the information environment that governments are working in.

Austin Carson: It doesn’t mean you can’t do things secretly. It just means you maybe do things a little bit differently in order to keep them secret or anticipate and think through the consequences of exposure. I think that is something that we will be dealing with for a long time, because it represents, or is a product of the underlying shifts in information technology, the accessibility of information, and in some ways a democratizing effect that we might be happy about. But from a perspective of governments it’s something that we have to factor in.

Paul Rand: Carson is most interested in how presidents of the past have dealt with secrets. His latest research project looks at the intelligence in one specific document, the President’s Daily Brief, otherwise known as PDB.

Austin Carson: The CIA declassified an 18-year span of PDBs from 1961 to 1977. These PDBs are basically the showcase of the intelligence community and a daily summary of all the events abroad of relevance to US security, or in some cases, economic interests that need to go to the White House and to the president. What’s really fascinating is that the document as it’s delivered to the president changes a lot over time. Sometimes they’re really short; three, four pages. Sometimes they’re 15, 17, 18 pages long. Sometimes they cover three topics. Sometimes they cover a bunch of different topics. They hop around the globe and they cover everything from wars to the discovery of oil deposits off the shore of some country.

Austin Carson: What I’ve done is I’ve built a research team currently at about six or seven research undergraduate and graduate research assistants. What we’re doing is systematically taking those documents, extracting the text out of them so we can analyze over time, and even within a single day, what’s being talked about, when, how often, and in response to what. We’re also looking at interesting patterns in them, like how much material is redacted or withheld, and how much does that change over time? We might think right around Watergate, was there lots of stuff redacted in these president’s daily briefs or not? Try and understand why especially sensitive information reached the president sometimes, and then sometimes it wasn’t being passed on.

Austin Carson: We’re even looking at the maps that were in these president’s daily briefs, because sometimes they include maps. I’m curious; what are the maps doing? Why are they getting maps to the presidents? Is it just to tell you, “Hey, this is where Niger is, or is it giving you more accurate or refined information?

Austin Carson: That work is ongoing, but it’s work that’s really exciting in a sense that it’s historical, but has a lot of these connections to today in terms of what the PDB is informed Trump or Obama or other presidents in our lifetimes.

Paul Rand: That’s going to be absolutely fascinating looking back at this because there’s certainly been dialogue that to your earlier comments, that whether there’s been a change in what is going into those briefs with this current president, and there certainly are reports that it has affected what’s shared or not shared.

Austin Carson: Yeah, absolutely. That change has been really interesting. There’s also been discussion about what the style of intelligence information being presented to Trump, how that had to change. He’s much more of a visual person, an oral person. He’s not a reader. Accounts by the CIA itself about the history of this document are very clear that every new president, they try to figure out what’s their style, and they put this stuff in the style of the president because they don’t want to be tuned out. That’s the last thing you want from their perspective.

Austin Carson: Part of what looking at this historically allows us to do is see that Trump may be an extreme version of it, but every president has their own style. We can see how that president’s daily, brief adapts and changes to match the different styles, the styles of Kennedy or of Johnson or of Nixon, or if Gerald Ford. Also in addition to this idea of sometimes the president’s getting lots of sensitive information that we ultimately, when it’s declassified is still redacted. Sometimes that information is not really going to the president. He’s only just getting the bullet points and the highlights. That too is not just a Trump phenomenon, but clearly something of interest given what’s been reported about Trump.

Paul Rand: Very interesting. You’re teaching here at the University of Chicago. As you think about teaching students some of the things that you’re focused in on, what is it that you’re hoping that they are learning from your research and your studies, and where does that hopefully give them a shorter learning curve as they get into the real world?

Austin Carson: I take this very seriously. As part of my teaching, I developed a course called “The Secret Side of International Politics.” I kind of think of it as my baby. That’s really the class that’s most aligned with my research, and one that I’ve put a lot of effort into thinking about how to teach it and what exercises to assign to really give students a sense of the kind of research I do and why I love that research.

Austin Carson: The other thing I really emphasize is giving them hands-on experience of doing the kind of research that I find to be really interesting. One of the motives that I had in choosing this topic beyond the ones I’ve mentioned is I just love working with declassified materials. I find it endlessly fascinating to find out what American decision makers knew during Vietnam at certain times and piece together what history tells us that we thought that they knew. I have an assignment in that class in which students write an original research paper, minimum of 25 pages long that must be based on a Corpus or a body of declassified materials, usually American government, but some students have used other government’s declassified materials.

Austin Carson: The papers that have come out of that assignment have just blown me away. Every time I teach this class, finals period comes, the papers start coming in, I block off a couple of days because it takes a long time to read all the papers, but time and again, it’s fascinating details, fascinating insights. The students by and large really respond well to the trust being given to them to craft their own argument, to engage in the kinds of research that historians do, or in my case, some political scientists do. It’s been a really a good experience and one that I’m going to continue to put energy into and to offer for students that are here.


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