To see what Madison really thought about secrecy it is worth recalling the case of David Howell, Rhode Island's delegate to the Continental Congress, who leaked to the Providence Gazette news of a friendly overture from Sweden. Howell leaked the news, which had been recorded in the Secret Journal on Benjamin Franklin's request, because he believed it vindicated his stance that the United States would be able to mend its war-ravaged finances by raising new loans in Europe, and that Congress therefore did not have to impose a 5% import duty that Rhode Islanders opposed.
Claiming to have informed his constituents of "such things as they have a right to know," Howell subsequently defended his action before the Continental Congress as an exercise of "the freedom of speech." Sound familiar?
Guess how his colleagues -- our revered Founders -- reacted. Howell's response, Madison observes in his "Notes of Debates," provoked "universal indignation," because his colleagues viewed his actions as having betrayed the Swedes and presented the public with a distorted picture of the United States' financial dealings that could not be corrected without revealing "many delicate transactions." Not surprisingly, then, Howell's defense of his action was formally condemned -- on Alexander Hamilton's motion -- as "highly derogatory to the honor and dignity of the United States in Congress."
To be clear, the fact that secrecy has long been seen as being in the public interest does not give officials carte blanche to do as they like. Secrecy needs to be balanced against important civil liberties.
The central question is: Who should do the balancing? The reason the Constitution entrusts the business of balancing values to the three branches is because the officials in charge are chosen by the people and are in a position to check each other, especially with respect to secret policies or operations that it would be self-defeating to make public.
So when an individual decides to short-circuit or circumvent this careful arrangement, he must only do so when there is reason to believe that representatives from all three branches have allowed grave wrongdoing to go unchecked. Otherwise, an unauthorized disclosure is nothing more than an effort to impose one's own narrow political view on one's fellow citizens.
In such a case, it is the leaker, not state secrecy, that poses an "existential threat" to American democracy.
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