Official Secrets

by Kieran Healy on March 7, 2006

I’ve been rereading some Weber for an article I’m writing, and while taking a break from it came across “this story”: about the administration going after journalists:

bq. The Bush administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, has launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources. The efforts include several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.

Weber is pretty direct on this subject:

The party leader and the administrative staff which is appointed by him … constitute the political administration of the state … The cabinet protects itself from the attacks of its followers who seek office and its opponents by the usual means, by monopolizing official secrets and maintaining solidarity against all outsiders. Unless there is an effective separation of powers, this system involves the complete appropriation of all powers by the party organization in control at the time; not only the top positions but often many of the lower offices become benefices of the party followers.

And later:

bq. Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge. … This consists on the one hand of technical knowledge, which, by itself, is sufficient to ensure it a position of extraordinary power. But in addition to this, bureaucratic organizations, or the holders of power who make use of them, have the tendency to increase their power still further by the knowledge growing out of experience in the service. For they acquire through the conduct of office a special knowledge of facts and have available a store of documentary material peculiar to themselves. While not particular to bureaucratic organizations, the concept of “official secrets” is certainly typical of them. It stands in relation to technical knowledge in somewhat the same position as commercial secrets do to technological training. It is the product of the striving for power.



PersonFromPorlock 03.07.06 at 8:47 am

Well, it was journalists who long ago defined their relationship with government as ‘adversarial’, so I don’t suppose they can complain too much if government treats them as adversaries.

Weber is useful, but the traits he identifies are generally applicable and not peculiar to the present administration. The Clinton administration wasn’t exactly a paragon of transparency either, although it did prefer to use the IRS instead of the DOJ to silence its critics.


des von bladet 03.07.06 at 9:07 am

Unless there is an effective separation of powers, …

Has anyone tried an ‘effective separation of powers’? How did it work out in practice?


Kieran Healy 03.07.06 at 9:17 am

the traits he identifies are generally applicable and not peculiar to the present administration.

Yes, obviously. That’s the point of what he’s doing.


Mrs. Coulter 03.07.06 at 10:33 am

Weber rocks the house, as usual. Hint to PFP: it’s called an “ideal type” for a reason.

Arguably, an important difference between the Clinton admin and this one is that in the current admin all three branches of government are effectively controlled by the same party, which seems to be seriously eroding the separation of powers. As much as I want to believe that the Democrats are the Good Guys(TM), I suspect we’d see a similar phenomenon if all three branches were Democrat-controlled. The absence of a meaningful opposition party has pretty thoroughly distorted things.


Barbara W. Klaser 03.07.06 at 1:25 pm

Oh, it’s the reporters’ fault when someone leaks information to them?

And here I always thought it was the responsibility of the government official with access to secrets to make sure whomever s/he reveals them to has a clearance and a need to know.

I suppose it’s easier on the White House, at this point, to just blame the reporters.

Then of course there’s that theory that it’s okay for an individual at a particular level to arbitrarily classify or declassify information on the fly, according to personal convenience.

It must be nice to rewrite the rules as you go along. Sort of like that Easy Button from Staples.
I can just hear certain officials singing “I got the power” as they press that red button.


auderey 03.07.06 at 2:47 pm

kieran, can you post the citation? thanks!


Kieran Healy 03.07.06 at 5:22 pm

Max Weber, _Economy and Society_, edited by Geunther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. pp.294, 225. (“And later” above should read “And also.”)


Daniel 03.08.06 at 7:48 am

“the Official Secrets Act is not there to protect secrets; it is there to protect officials”

Sir Humphrey Appleby, I think.

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