Colaresi, Michael P (2014) Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security. Oxford: OUP. 400 pp.

ISBN (hc): 978-0-199-38977-3

Helga Hernes

PRIO and former Head of the Norwegian Parliamentary Oversight Committee

The starting-point for Colaresi’s interesting and innovative book is the dilemma between transparency as a central value in liberal democratic theory and the requirement for secrecy in foreign policy. The need for secrecy is accepted by most citizens as well as decision makers. Information is given only on a ‘need to know basis’ and the wish to be in the know is not all that great. Political ‘abdication’ by decision makers as well as the citizenry when it comes to covert plans and operations is widespread throughout all democracies. This lack of interest is at times even regretted by those ‘in the know’ since they have to bear the responsibility for eventual mistakes or the consequences of failed operations. Embarrassing scandals from time to time lead to reassessments of obvious breaches of trust even among close allies. Yet discovery of obvious abuse of citizens’ trust can be very harmful or even fatal for the reputation as well as the political longevity of the perpetrators. Political scandals, the abuse of public trust and the uncovering of corruption for private or politically illegitimate gain are punished severely, mostly through the withdrawal of consent and trust. Countries have sought institutional solutions to this democratic dilemma. One recent innovation is to set up institutions for the oversight of the activities of the various secret services. Colaresi develops a statistical measure for the strength of such arrangements in strong democracies and argues that in fact they strengthen their foreign policies. Oversight is mostly carried out by expert committees which report to parliament or the governments concerned. Yet the focus of their oversight rarely relates to foreign policy related but rather surveillance of the state’s own citizens.