Skip to main content Accessibility help

Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Paranoid Style in the National Security State 1

  • Thomas C. Ellington


In meeting the threat posed by terrorism, the democratic state also faces a paradox: those practices best suited to defending the state are often least suited to democracy. Such is the case with official secrecy, which has received renewed attention. Military and intelligence operations frequently depend on secrecy for their success. At the same time, democracy depends on openness, a fact too often neglected by democratic theory. Official secrecy subverts citizen autonomy and in so doing creates fertile ground for paranoid-style thinking. For the United States, a history of secrets and lies has left a legacy of distrust and paranoia.



Hide All

An earlier version of this article, entitled ‘Secrets, Security and Suspicion: Challenges to Democracy’ was presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Boston, Mass.



Hide All

2 Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, New York, Knopf, 1979.

3 The terms ‘suspicion’ and ‘paranoia’ are frequently paired here, but there is a distinction intended. On a continuum extending from trust to distrust, suspicion and paranoia are both types of distrust, and paranoia can be seen simply as an extreme form of suspicion. A further distinction is useful, though. Whereas suspicion involves doubt and uncertainty about a particular claim, paranoia involves both rejection of a claim and certainty about an alternative claim for which a reasonable person would see insufficient evidence.

4 Suspicion and paranoia are not the only costs of official secrecy, although if they were, they would still be serious enough to warrant the close attention of democratic theory. Official secrecy brings with it a variety of other costs to democracy far too large to discuss here except in passing. These costs are felt at all levels of analysis: self, state and society. In creating a class of information to which citizens are forbidden access, official secrecy limits their ability to make the decisions best for their own private interests, as well as for the common good. At the core of democracy is the idea that citizens are expected to govern themselves, and official secrecy denies them the information they may need to do so effectively.

5 R. Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style …, op. cit.

6 Ibid., p. 4.

7 James Bamford, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century, New York, Doubleday, 2001, p. 82. A detailed discussion of Operation Northwoods is found in Body of Secrets. A declassified memorandum from Lemnitzer on a portion of the plan is also available on line at the National Security Archive at

8 Thierry Meyssan, 11 Septembre 2001: L’effroyable Imposture, Chatou, France, Editions Carnot, 2002.

9 BBC News, ‘French Lap Up Pentagon Crash “Fraud” ’, 2002,

10 Carol Valentine, ‘Operation 911: No Suicide Pilots’, Public Action Inc., 6 October 2001,

11 Frank Levy, ‘This Article Has Been Removed Twice: Signs of a Cover-up at the Pentagon’, D.C. Independent Media Center, 19 February 2002,

12 Steve Grey, ‘September 11 Attacks: Evidence of U.S. Collusion’, D.C. Independent Media Center. 12 January 2002,

13 Jim Marrs, ‘An Overview of the War on Terrorism’, D.C. Independent Media Center, 28 October 2001, and Enver Masud, ‘What Really Happened on 9–11?’, D.C. Independent Media Center, 15 February 2002,

14 See, for example, S. Grey, ‘September 11 Attacks: Evidence of U.S. Collusion’, op. cit.; J. Marrs, ‘An Overview of the War on Terrorism’, op. cit. and C. Valentine, ‘Operation 911: No Suicide Pilots’, op. cit.

15 Associated Press, ‘Farrakhan Seeks Proof Bin Laden Aided Attack’, The Washington Post, 18 October 2001, p. A26.

16 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1998.

17 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ‘Secrecy as Government Regulation’, P.S.: Political Science and Politics, 30 (1997), pp. 160–5.

18 Robert L. Park, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

19 Project Mogul was a classified project for developing high-altitude weather balloons for use in detecting Soviet nuclear tests. Thomas offers a detailed comparison of debris found at Roswell with materials used in Project Mogul and pinpoints the test flight that was the likely source of the debris. See Dave Thomas, ‘The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul’, The Skeptical Inquirer, July 1995,

20 R. L. Park, Voodoo Science, op. cit., p. 179.

21 Robert S. Robins, and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1997, p. 47.

22 Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, New York, Vintage Books, 1984.

23 Ibid., p. 6.

24 David N. Gibbs, ‘Secrecy and International Relations’, Journal of Peace Research, 32: 2 (1995), pp. 213–28.

25 Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II, ‘Mr Clinton's Chinese Generals’, The Washington Post, 12 February 1999, p. A35.

26 R. S. Robins and J. M. Post, Political Paranoia, op. cit., p. 50.

27 Pat M. Holt, Secret Intelligence and Public Policy: A Dilemma of Democracy, Washington, CQ Press, 1995.

28 Charles Lane, ‘Slain Rebel's Wife To Plead Own Case Before High Court: Lawyer Seeks Right to Sue Ex-U.S. Officials’, The Washington Post, 18 March 2002, p. A3.

29 For this and other examples of disinformation, see Tabassum Zakaria, ‘U.S. Planting False Stories: Common Cold War Tactic’, Reuters, 25 February 2002, posted at and John Jacob Nutter, The CIA's Black Ops: Covert Action, Foreign Policy and Democracy, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 2000.

30 Mike Allen, ‘White House Angered at Plan For Pentagon Disinformation’, The Washington Post, 25 February 2002, p. A17.

31 T. Zakaria, ‘U.S. Planting False Stories Common Cold War Tactic’, op. cit.

32 While the focus here is the meaning of secrecy for democracy domestically, it is certainly worth noting that in terms of foreign relations, the United States was actively engaged in undermining a democratically elected leader and manipulating public opinion in Chile.

33 P. M. Holt, Secret Intelligence and Public Policy, op. cit., p. 142.

34 Ibid., p. 143.

35 Bradley Graham, ‘Secrecy on Missile Defense Grows: Pentagon Shelves Timetables, Cost Estimates; Critics Say Oversight Imperiled’, The Washington Post, 12 June 2002, p. A10.

36 R. L. Park, Voodoo Science, p. 181.

37 R. S. Robins and J. M. Post, Political Paranoia, op. cit., p. 8.

38 In Michel Brun, Incident at Sakhalin: The True Mission of KAL Flight 007, trans. Roberto Bononno, New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, pp. xvii–xviii.

39 R. S. Robins and J. M. Post, Political Paranoia, op. cit.

40 Putnam, for instance, points to a strong correlation between social trust and civic engagement and calls for efforts to increase social connectedness in order to restore engagement and social trust. See Robert D. Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, 6: 1(1995), pp. 65–78.

41 Uslaner explains the difference: ‘There is no general syndrome of trust. Trusting other people makes you barely more likely to trust the government to do what is right. Trust in government reflects whether people have favorable impressions of the people in power and the institutions of government, as well as whether they agree with the policies of the current regime. Confidence in government is based on experiences. Trust in other people is not.’ See Eric M. Uslaner, The Moral Foundations of Trust, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

42 Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, New York, Vintage Books, p. 27.

43 R. S. Robins and J. M. Post, Political Paranoia, op. cit., pp. 301–2.

44 Anonymous, ‘Keeping Secrets: Congress, the Courts and National Security Information’, Harvard Law Review, 103: 4 (1990), pp. 906–25.

45 Mary M. Cheh, ‘Judicial Supervision of Executive Secrecy: Rethinking Freedom of Expression for Government Employees and the Public Right of Access to Government Information’, Cornell Law Review, 69 (1984), pp. 690–734.

46 Dan Eggen and Susan Schmidt, ‘Secret Court Rebuffs Ashcroft: Justice Dept. Chided on Misinformation’, The Washington Post, 23 August 2002, pp. A1, A10–11.

47 Bruce Fein, ‘What the FISA Court Did and Didn’t Do’, The Washington Times, 27 August 2002, p. A14.

48 See, for instance, Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1997, Morton H. Halperin and Daniel N. Hoffman, Top Secret: National Security and the Right to Know, Washington, New Republic Books, 1977 and Anonymous, ‘Keeping Secrets’, Harvard Law Review, op. cit.

49 ‘Judge Upholds Secrecy of Invisible Ink Formulas’, The Washington Post, 15 February 2002, p. A15.

50 Dana Milbank and Peter Slevin, ‘Bush Edict on Briefings Irks Hill: White House Stems Information Flow’, The Washington Post, 10 October 2002, pp. A1, A4.

1 An earlier version of this article, entitled ‘Secrets, Security and Suspicion: Challenges to Democracy’ was presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Boston, Mass.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed