Foresight Background
No. 4, Rev. 0

by Arthur Kantrowitz

Dartmouth College

"The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of
a democracy should be the weapon of openness."

--Niels Bohr


What is the "weapon of openness" and why is it the best weapon of a
democracy? Openness here means public access to the information needed
for the making of public decisions. Increased public access (i.e. less
secrecy) also gives information to adversaries, thereby increasing
their strength. The "weapon of openness" is the net contribution that
increased openness (i.e. less secrecy) makes to the survival of a
society. Bohr believed that the gain in strength from openness in a
democracy exceeded the gains of its adversaries, and thus openness was
a weapon.

This is made plausible by a Darwinian argument. Open societies evolved
as fittest to survive and to reproduce themselves in an international
jungle. Thus the strength of the weapon of openness has been tested
and proven in battle and in imitation. Technology developed most
vigorously in precisely those times, i.e. the industrial revolution,
and precisely those places, western Europe and America, where the
greatest openness existed. Gorbachev's glasnost is recognition that
this correlation is alive and well today.

Let us note immediately that secrecy and surprise are clearly
essential weapons of war and that even countries like the U.S., which
justifiably prided itself on its openness, have made great and
frequently successful efforts to use secrecy as a wartime weapon.
Bohr's phrase was coined following WWII when his primary concern was
with living with nuclear weapons. This paper is concerned with the
impact of secrecy vs. openness policy on the development of military
technology in a long duration peacetime rivalry.

Let us also immediately note that publication is the route to all
rewards in academic science and technology. When publication is
denied, the culture changes toward the standard hierarchical culture
where rewards are dependent on finding favor with superiors. Reward
through publication has been remarkably successful in stimulating
independent thinking. However, in assessing openness vs. secrecy
policy it must be borne in mind that research workers (including the
present author) start with strong biases favoring openness.

In contrast, secrecy insiders come from a culture where access to
deeper secrets conveys higher status. Those who "get ahead" in the
culture of secrecy understand its uses for personal advancement.
Knowledge is power, and for many insiders access to classified
information is the chief source of their power. It is not surprising
that secrecy insiders see the publication of technological information
as endangering national security. On the other hand, to what degree
can we accept insiders' assurances that operations not subject to
public scrutiny or to free marketplace control will strengthen our

My own experience relates only to secrecy in technology. Therefore I
will not discuss such secrets as submarine positions (which seem
perfectly justifiable to me in the sense that they clearly add to our
strength) or activities which are kept secret to avoid the
difficulties of explaining policy choices to the public (which seem
disastrously divisive to me).

First, we offer some clues to understanding the historical military
strength of openness in long duration competition with secrecy.

Second, we suggest a procedure for the utilization of more openness to
increase our strength.

The Strength of Openness

 An important source of support for secrecy in technology is the
ancient confusion between magic and science. In many communications
addressed to laymen the terms are used almost interchangeably. Magic
depends on secrecy to create its illusions while science depends on
openness for its progress. A major part of the educated public and the
media have not adequately understood this profound difference between
magic and science. This important failure in our educational system is
one source of the lack of general appreciation of the power of
openness as a source of military strength. A more general
understanding of the power of openness would bolster our faith that
open societies would continue to be fittest to survive.

Openness is necessary for the processes of trial and the elimination
of error, Sir Karl Popper's beautiful description of the mechanism of
progress in science. Let's try to understand what happens to each of
these processes in a secret project and perhaps we can shed some light
on how the peacetime military was able to justly acquire its
reputation for resistance to novelty.

Trial in Popper's language means receptivity to the unexpected
conjecture. There is the tradition of the young outsider challenging
the conventional wisdom. However in real life it is always difficult
for really new ideas to be heard. Such a victory is almost impossible
in a hierarchical structure. The usual way a new idea can be heard is
for it to be sold first outside the hierarchy. When the project is
secret this is much more difficult, whether the inventor is inside or
outside the project.

Impediments to the elimination of errors will determine the pace of
progress in science as they do in many other matters. It is important
here to distinguish between two types of error which I will call
ordinary and cherished errors. Ordinary errors can be corrected
without embarrassment to powerful people. The elimination of errors
which are cherished by powerful people for prestige, political, or
financial reasons is an adversary process. In open science this
adversary process is conducted in open meetings or in scientific
journals. In a secret project it almost inevitably becomes a political
battle and the outcome depends on political strength, although the
rhetoric will usually employ much scientific jargon.

Advances in technology incorporate a planning process in addition to
the trial and elimination of error which is basic to all life. When
the planned advance is small the planning can be dominant, in the
sense that little new knowledge is required and no significant errors
must be anticipated. When the planned advance is large it will usually
involve research and invention, and the processes of trial and the
elimination of error discussed above will determine the rate of
progress. In these cases the advantages of openness will be especially
important. The familiar disappointments in meeting schedules and
budgets are frequently related to the fact that, in selling new
programs, the importance of these unpredictable processes is not
sufficiently emphasized. More openness would reduce these

Trial and the elimination of error is essential to significant
progress in military technology, and thus both aspects of the process
by which significant progress is made in military technology are
sharply decelerated when secrecy is widespread in peacetime. Openness
accelerates progress. In peacetime military technology, openness is a
weapon. It is one clue to the survival of open societies in an
international jungle.

Secrecy as an Instrument of Corruption

The other side of the coin is the weakness which secrecy fosters as an
instrument of corruption. This is well illustrated in Reagan's 1982
Executive Order #12356 on National Security (alarmingly tightening
secrecy) which states {Sec. 1.6(a)};

In no case shall information be classified in order to conceal
violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; to prevent
embarrassment to a person, organization or agency; to restrain
competition; or to prevent or delay the release of information that
does not require protection in the interest of national security.

This section orders criminals not to conceal their crimes and the
inefficient not to conceal their inefficiency. But beyond that it
provides an abbreviated guide to the crucial roles of secrecy in the
processes whereby power corrupts and absolute power corrupts
absolutely. Corruption by secrecy is an important clue to the strength
of openness.

One of the most important impacts of corruption from secrecy is on the
making of major technical decisions. Any federally sponsored project
and especially a project so hotly contested as the Strategic Defense
Initiative must always keep all its constituencies in mind when making
such decisions. Thus the leadership must ask itself whether its
continual search for allies will be served by making a purely
technical decision one way or the other. (A purely technical decision
might determine whether money flows to Ohio or to Texas. Worse yet,
revealing technical weaknesses could impact the project budget.)

When this search for allies occurs in an unclassified project,
technical criticisms, which will come from the scientific community
outside the project, must be considered.  Consideration of these
criticisms can improve the decision making process dramatically by
bringing a measure of the power of the scientific method to the making
of major technical decisions.

In a classified project, the vested interests which grow around a
decision can frequently prevent the questioning of authority necessary
for the elimination of error. Peacetime classified projects have a
very bad record of rejecting imaginative suggestions which frequently
are very threatening to the existing political power structure.

When technical information is classified, public technical criticism
will inevitably degrade to a media contest between competing
authorities and, in the competition for attention, it will never be
clear whether politics or science is speaking. We then lose both the
power of science and the credibility of democratic process.

Corruption is a progressive disease. It diffuses from person to person
across society by direct observations of its efficacy and its safety.
The efficacy of the abuse of secrecy for interagency rivalry and for
personal advancement is well illustrated by the array of abuses listed
in Sec. 1.6(a).  The safety of the abuse of secrecy for the abuser is
dependent upon the enforcement of the Section. As abuses spread and
become the norm, enforcibility declines and corruption diffuses more

However, diffusive processes take time to spread through an
organization, and this makes it possible for secrecy to make a
significant contribution to national strength during a crisis. When a
new organization is created to respond to an emergency, as for example
the scientific organizations created at the start of WWII, the
behavior norms of the group recruited may not tolerate the abuse of
secrecy for personal advancement or interagency rivalry. In such
cases, and for a short time, secrecy may be an effective tactic. The
general belief that there is strength in secrecy rests partially on
its short-term successes. If we had entered WWII with a well-developed
secrecy system and the corruption which would have developed with
time, I am convinced that the results would have been quite different.

Secrecy Exacerbates Divisiveness: the SDI Example

Reagan's Executive Order, previously referred to, provides another
clue to the power of openness. The preamble states;

It [this order] recognizes that it is essential that the public be
informed concerning the activities of its Government, but that the
interests of the United States and its citizens require that certain
information concerning the national defense and foreign relations be
protected against unauthorized disclosure.

The tension in this statement is not resolved in the order. It may be
informative to attempt a resolution by considering a concrete example,
namely the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI symbolizes one of the
conflicts, clearly exacerbated by secrecy, which currently divide us.

I would assert that there are unilateral steps toward openness which
we could take, and which would leave us more unified and stronger,
even if no reciprocal steps were taken by the Soviets. I propose that
we start unclassified research programs designed to provide scientific
information needed for making public policy. If these programs are
uncoupled from classified programs, their emphases would not
compromise classified information. Their purpose would be to provide a
knowledge base for public policy discussions. These programs would not
reveal the decisions taken secretly, but a public knowledge base would
reduce the debilitating divisiveness fostered by secrecy.

The Strategic Defense Initiative provides a classic example of
debilitating divisiveness. Countermeasures to SDI are deeply
classified. The deadly game of countermeasures and
countercountermeasures will probably determine whether SDI is
successful or a large-scale Maginot Line. At the present time,
classification of the countermeasure area trivializes the public
debate to a media battle between opposed authorities offering
conflicting interpretations of secret information.

An example of this game is decoying vs. discrimination. If the offense
can proliferate a multitude of decoys which cannot be discriminated
from warheads by the defense, SDI will not succeed. Knowing a decoy
design would of course make it easier for an adversary to discriminate
it from a warhead. It is therefore very important that such designs be
carefully guarded. On the other hand, maintaining secrecy over the
scientific and engineering research basic to the
decoying-discrimination technology would, for the reasons discussed
earlier, make it much more difficult to provide assurance to the
public that all avenues had been explored. Indeed, a substantial part
of the criticism of the feasibility of SDI turns on the possibility
that an adversary would invent a countermeasure for which we would be

The Cryptography Case: Uncoupled Open Programs

We can learn something about the efficiency of secret vs. open
programs in peacetime from the objections raised by Adm. Bobby R.
Inman, former director of the National Security Agency, to open
programs in cryptography. NSA, which is a very large and very secret
agency, claimed that open programs conducted by a handful of
matheticians around the world, who had no access to NSA secrets, would
reveal to other countries that their codes were insecure and that such
research might lead to codes that even NSA could not break. These
objections exhibit NSA's assessment that the best secret efforts, that
other countries could mount, would miss techniques which would be
revealed by even a small open uncoupled program. If this is true for
other countries is it not possible that it also applies to us?

Inman (1985) asserted that "There is an overlap between technical
information and national security which inevitably produces tension.
This tension results from the scientists' desire for unrestrained
research and publication on the one hand, and the Federal Government's
need to protect certain information from potential foreign adversaries
who might use that information against this nation.

I would assert that uncoupled open programs (UOP) in cryptography make
America stronger. They provide early warning of the capabilities an
adversary might have in breaking our codes. There are many instances
where secret bureaucracies have disastrously overestimated the
invulnerability of their codes. In this case I see no tension between
the national interest and openness. The cryptographers have provided a
fine case study in strengthening the weapon of openness.

Consider then the value of starting unclassified, relatively cheap,
academic research programs uncoupled from the classified programs.
These UOP could provide the more solid information on countermeasures
needed for an informed political decision on SDI, just as the open
cryptography research has taught us something about the security of
our codes. If indeed SDI's critics are right about the opportunities
for the invention of countermeasures, then the UOP would provide an
opportunity to make a conclusive case. On the other hand if the open
programs exhibited that SDI could deal with all the countermeasures
suggested and retain its effectiveness, its case would be

These open programs would indeed be shared with the world. They would
strengthen the U.S. even if there were no response from the USSR by
reducing corruption by secrecy, by improving our decision making, and
by reducing our divisiveness. Undertaking such programs would exhibit
our commitment to strengthening the weapon of openness. Making that
commitment would enable democratic control of military technology.
More openness, reducing suspicions in areas where Americans are
divided, will do more to increase our military strength by unifying
the country and its allies than it could possibly do to increase the
military strength of its enemies.

The Weapon of Openness and the Future

Bohr's phrase which was the keynote of this article was invented in an
effort to adapt to the demands for social change required to live with
advancing military technology. Unfortunately Bohr's effort, to
persuade FDR and Churchhill of the desirability of more openness in
living with nuclear weapons, was a complete failure. There can be no
doubt that the future will bring even more rapid rates of progress in
science-based technology. Let's just mention three possibilities,
noting that these are only foreseeable developments and that there
will be surprises which, if the past is any guide, will be still more

Artificial Intelligence is advancing, driven by its enormous economic
potential and its challenge in understanding brain function.

Molecular biology and genetic engineering are creating powers beyond
our ability to forecast limits.

Feynman some years ago wrote a paper entitled "There's Plenty of Room
at the Bottom" pointing out that miniaturization could aspire to the
huge advances possible with the controlled assembly of individual
atoms. When the possibility of the construction of assemblers which
could reproduce themselves was added by Eric Drexler in his book
Engines of Creation, a very large expansion of the opportunities in
atomic scale assembly were opened up. This pursuit, today known as
nanotechnology, will also be driven by the enormous advantages it
affords for health and for human welfare.

But each of these has possible military uses comparable in impact to
that of nuclear weapons. With the aid of the openness provided by
satellites and arms control treaties, we have been able to live with
nuclear weapons. We will need much more openness to live with the
science-based technologies that lie ahead.

Dr. Kantrowitz is a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at
Dartmouth, and former Chairman of Avco-Everett Research Lab.  He
serves as an Advisor to the Foresight Institute.