Is a secret a lie?

Is a secret a lie? That is, in and of itself, are secrets lies?

This thought was engendered by the events of the last week about previously classified court orders and data mining programs at the NSA, and the larger world of classified activities.

In “history of the lie” Derrida states that a lie is not an error. You can be in error about something, mistaken about it (“why did you miss the meeting at 1pm?”, “oh I thought we were meeting at 2pm“) without lying. As he also says, one does not lie simply by saying something that is false, as long as “one believes in good faith in the truth of what one believes” (p. 31).

Instead, “to lie is to want to deceive the other, sometimes even by saying what is true” (31). Is that what a secret does? A secret withholds, it withholds the “whole truth” in the first instance, and so deceives. And it might also be deceptive in the sense that it says “there are no secrets here,” as the Verizon FISA Court Order says, you cannot tell of this secret order. You cannot tell of the fact of, this order, nor may you tell of the content of, this order. Not all secrets do that. Sometimes you may tell of the fact of, a secret. the “fact of” Prism was not a secret. But for it to be a secret you can never tell of the content of, a secret. What Prism does, is a secret (and very contested between the tech companies and some interpretations of media reports).

So yes, secrets do seem inherently to be lies, and in a double or triple sense. They don’t tell the whole truth (they withhold, and sometimes even doubly withhold that they are withholding), and secondly they “want to deceive,” which is the definition of a lie, according to Derrida.

Update: In the intelligence world, there’s a related distinction that is often made, between “covert” operations (ops) and “clandestine” ones. Covert ops are deniable by their sponsor. They hide the “fact of” a secret activity or mission (eg., by providing innocuous cover story for an agent). You may see something, but not know it’s a secret. Clandestine means the ops are hidden, but if they were to be observed, could not necessarily be denied. Clearly, covert ops are the “double secret” whereas clandestine are merely the ordinary secret.

In our context, Prism was an ordinary secret, what it does is unknown. The FISA court order to Verizon, however (and National Security Letters, NSLs) is covert, in the sense of having this double layer of secrecy (a recipient would be legally obliged to say they had not received one). /update

There’s a lot more to be said about secrecy than this, for example this special section of the journal Theory, Culture & Society from 2011 begins to critique secrecy’s supposed opposite, transparency. I am all for questioning the limits of transparency, but feel we still have some way to thinking through secrecy just yet. Perhaps more on this later.

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4 responses to “Is a secret a lie?

  1. Pingback: When is a lie? | Open Geography

  2. Pingback: Transparency and secrecy | Open Geography

  3. Pingback: Looking at “Top Secret America” as the “Empire of Secrets” – Militainment and the National Security State

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