Pitfalls of Making Policy in Secret Lost Are Leaders' Accountability and Public Support

By Lee H. Hamilton. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Pitfalls of Making Policy in Secret Lost Are Leaders' Accountability and Public Support


Lee H. Hamilton. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee., The Christian Science Monitor


TOO much of American foreign policy is made in secret. This is a legacy of the 1980s, when the US began to support secret military operations to overturn Soviet-backed regimes in the third world.

Three of these operations - in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Angola - reportedly cost several hundred million dollars annually. There is confusion in Congress and among the American public about the aims of each operation, whom we support, and why we support them. Yet because these operations have been conceived and implemented in secret, we have had little opportunity to debate or to correct them. Secret foreign policies reduce accountability, undercut policy coordination, weaken intelligence, and undermine public support.

Questions surround current secret operations:

- In Afghanistan, Muslim rebels fighting the Soviet-backed government continue to receive US support, despite their fundamentalist, anti-democratic, and anti-Western views. Reports have linked the rebels to the sale of US weapons and the heroin trade;

- Cambodia's complex civil war raises difficult questions about whom we should support and how best to do it. Continued US material support for non-communist groups fighting the government could increase the chances of a return to power by their allies, the dreaded Khmer Rouge;

- In Angola, a reported recent expansion in secret US support for the UNITA rebels of Jonas Savimbi raises questions about the goals of our policy and its impact on our relations with the rest of Africa. Concerns persist about UNITA's human rights record and political program.

These issues are too important and intricate to be addressed in secret, by a handful of executive-branch officials. They should be addressed via the normal foreign policymaking process, through open review and public deliberation. Formulating and implementing American foreign policy in secret, bypassing this process, causes several problems.

First, secret foreign policies undermine accountability. In the normal policymaking process, the president proposes initiatives, Congress suggests revisions, the press comments, and the public debates. The president must defend his proposals. Rigorous scrutiny refines policies, corrects mistakes, and assures accountability.

But as long as the president chooses to keep an operation secret, scrutiny is limited to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, whose rules effectively preclude wider debate.

It is understandable why presidents want to conduct certain major foreign policy initiatives in secret. Some involve sensitive national security issues, and secret initiatives are easier to implement than public ones. But secrecy prevents the debate and scrutiny that can correct mistakes.

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Pitfalls of Making Policy in Secret Lost Are Leaders' Accountability and Public Support
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