Shedding light on need for secrets

Times Movie Critic

Smart and unexpected, “Secrecy” combines thoughtful interviews with an elegant visual look to produce an incisive examination of some of the key issues of our time.

Co-directed by historian Peter Galison and filmmaker Robb Moss, this documentary’s subject is how much secrecy we really need. It asks whether it’s OK to use methods inconsistent with our values to protect our democracy, or whether those methods will leave us with no democracy left to protect. No matter which side of this issue you are on, “Secrecy” will leave you considering ideas you may not have thought of before.

That’s because the filmmakers have done an exceptional job finding formidably articulate people to take all points of view. There are no big names here but rather academics, attorneys and government officials who have thought long and hard about the questions involved.


More than finding the best people, “Secrecy” puts considerable effort into maximizing the aesthetic experience of the film. The interviews are arrestingly photographed; use is made of both original animation by Ruth Lingford and art pieces by people such as Jenny Holzer; and John Kusiack has written a first-rate score that lends a palpable air of uncertainty to the proceedings.

The case for secrecy is convincingly made by such speakers as Melissa Boyle Mahle, formerly with the CIA, and Mike Levin, who worked for the National Security Agency for 46 years. Levin relates a telling anecdote about how media disclosures led to the drying out of an intelligence channel that might have prevented the Beirut Marine barracks terrorist attack that killed 240 people.

On the other side is the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, who notes that “people who look only at security misjudge the kind of society they’re supposed to be defending.” But if journalists asking for openness is to be expected, some other points of view on that side are not.

For one thing, the case is made that the “need to know” compartmentalizing of information, a relic of the pre-computer age, actually hampers our intelligence gathering.

It’s also noted that security and secrecy are often invoked for no more noble purpose than to protect bureaucratic turf or to cover up incompetence. One of the saddest stories involves what’s called the Reynolds case, in which the government falsely cited security in keeping the accident report of a 1948 B-29 bomber crash away from the families of the civilian dead in the hopes of getting a Supreme Court ruling in its favor. As the daughter of a victim angrily says, “Men in power in my America decided to lie to the Supreme Court to get a precedent,” one that’s been invoked more than 600 times.

Perhaps the most memorable voice in “Secrecy” belongs to Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift, a Navy lawyer who successfully took the case of a Guantanamo detainee all the way to the Supreme Court. “Courage,” he says, “is the ability to follow principle even when you’re scared to death.”



“Secrecy.” MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.