'Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely'

May 19, 2006

Howard Goodall, whose CIA agent father voiced suspicion about Kim Philby during the Cold War, explores the culture of fear then and now

My mother had a secret. Well, more than one secret. But the one secret that organised the rest was that her husband was a spy. He worked, as she always put it, "for the government".

My father also had a secret. He was a spy who harboured a dark suspicion about his boss in the CIA: that he was preventing a dangerous Soviet spy from being outed because it would have ruined his career. My father's boss was James Jesus Angleton, the longest-serving director of counter-intelligence in the history of the US. The Soviet spy was Harold Adrian "Kim" Philby, who, in fact, turned out to be exactly what my father said he was: a Soviet spy - the most notorious Soviet spy in Cold War history. When Philby defected in July 1963, he was declared a hero of the Soviet Union. By then, he had caused the deaths of hundreds of Allied agents and informers and compromised the counter-intelligence operations of the US and Great Britain.

Angleton never forgave my father for pressing his suspicions. My father never forgave Angleton, for all the good it didn't do his career - or the good it didn't do our family. But until he died and left me his diary, my father never disclosed his secrets. The story of my parents' secrets is a family story and an account of our code of secrecy. It is also a story about my country (and yours), about our intelligence organisations (and yours) and the relationship of the Cold War culture of secrecy, fear and surveillance to the current culture of secrecy, fear and surveillance known as the War on Terror, the "global war on terror" or - more recently - our "enduring war".

It is a story increasingly told by those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in nuclear families where "what Daddy did" was never discussed openly, much less honestly. It would have been bad for their careers, which is to say, for our lives.

Yet in the past two years two notable memoirs of our families in these times of enduring Cold War crisis have appeared: Larry Kolb's Overworld: The Life and Times of a Reluctant Spy and John Richardson's My Father the Spy: A Memoir . Their stories and mine all reveal a remarkably similar pattern: the lack of open, honest and authentic communication in our nuclear families and its radiating relational fallout in the lives of wives and children. All three stories also depict the power politics of intelligence organisations, including the high likelihood of intelligence officers who speak out against bad policies, or who find themselves in compromised situations, being easily betrayed and discarded by their own government. And all three stories provide insights into the parallels that exist between cultures composed of intelligence, secrecy, fear and politics - then and now.

Secrets are said to be necessary to the conduct of intelligence, and perhaps that is so. But a cult of secrecy exists - not as a unique state of being outside of human affairs but instead as a real tension between that which secrecy enables and that which it constrains. A cult of secrecy enables power and commands loyalty but constrains the dissemination of reliable information necessary for an informed electorate to operate reasonably in a representative democratic society. For some democratically elected and appointed officials as well as for run-of-the-mill tyrants and dictators, the secrecy and loyalty that begets power are serious political intoxicants; they create a collective sense of distinct superiority (knowledge is power, after all) while enabling a dangerous lack of accountability for the resulting lies, cover-ups, arrogance, stupidity, greed and more lies that the need for secrecy inspires. As Frederick Hitz, former CIA Inspector General, says in his book The Great Game : "Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely."

Indeed. "Absolute" reaches all the way down into the families of agents and operators. It also reaches all the way up into the highest echelons of administrative and political power.

Do you doubt me? For those who do, let's examine the recent historical record.

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The CIA knew it and probably so did MI5. President George W. Bush knew it, Tony Blair knew it, Vice-president Dick Cheney knew it, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew it, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice knew it. How could they not? The intelligence was clear and the evidence irrefutable. We know it now, but it is too late in the game to count for more than bragging rights at dinner parties. The secret the cultists had to keep under an oath of loyalty was simple: there were no WMDs in Iraq. The resulting lie that required mere media perpetration was perhaps too easy: there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Lies, damn lies and absolute lies warranted by a culture of secrecy. Anxiety rules - anxiety already rampant in our post-9/11 cultures, already fuelled by an overheated rhetoric of impending terrorist threats and already visualised by a daily dose of colour-coded threat levels that were, like our heartbeats, already elevated. The surest communicative cure for a perpetual state of high anxiety is certainty, however false, preferably articulated by a person in a position of authority. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We must, the Liar-in-Chief and his cult of loyal cronies said, go to war. Blair, too, felt the need for war for reasons that are part of a "special relationship"

between our countries but seem more like some kind of backroom political deal. The anxious, relieved by a war fought by someone else less fortunate than themselves, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

There are secrets, and then there is the cult of secrecy. The war in Iraq was justified not by the need for intelligence organisations to keep secrets, because they didn't keep what they knew secret from our President or from your Prime Minister, but by a cult of secrecy. In a cult of secrecy, he who dares tell the truth is guilty of disloyalty rather than a champion of truth or democracy. And those who are disloyal are traitors.

I know. I grew up in a family where my father was "disloyal" because he told the truth. From my mother's point of view, and now from my own, he was a patriot. From James Angleton's point of view, his disloyalty, his questioning of a superior officer, his creation of a file that provided evidence of his assertions about Philby - well, no matter. The point was my father was perceived to be disloyal to the leadership of the cult of secrecy.

That led us from the Court of St James's, where my father supposedly worked in the Veterans Department at the US Embassy, to an imposed exile in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Which led to my mother's mental illness and my father's alcoholism and increasing despair.

Tolstoy wrote: "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way." He was wrong. Some unhappy families are unhappy in very similar, even predictable ways. For those of us who grew up in families that submitted to a cult of secrecy, the resulting unhappiness is, while entirely ordinary, capable of creating the conditions for something else entirely. A cult of secrecy begets wars. And a lot of unhappy families.

Howard Lloyd (Bud) Goodall Jr is professor and director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. A Need to Know: The Clandestine History of a CIA Family is published this month by Left Coast Press, £15.99.

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