Bureaucrats love secrets. If they are given unchecked power to create secrets, they will find the temptation to use this power irresistible. They will use it to cover justified cases, for example, to preserve diplomatic and military secrets that are important for national security, or to protect the privacy of individual citizens (the information contained on tax returns, for instance). But at the same time bureaucrats use secrecy to obscure from public sight anything that might embarrass them or reduce their political power and influence, for instance, innocent mistakes, evidence of incompetence, evidence that the policies they have made or implemented do not work or have unforeseen negative consequences, corruption, or even evidence of criminal conspiracies and dealings.
Democratic deliberation rests on the premise that ideas, once exposed to the public—unfolded, challenged, tested, and disputed—will stand or fall on their own merit. The bureaucratic drive for secrecy rests, in many cases, on a need to keep information out of the hands of individuals who could use it to harm the bureaucracy. The bureaucrat will invariably say that an enemy could use the information to harm the country, but more often than not the real concern originates with the bureaucrat personally or the office where he or she works.
The bureaucrat may fear that the exposure of a mistake will damage his chances for promotion or undermine the prestige and influence of the bureaucratic institution where he works, making it vulnerable to bureaucratic rivals. To the extent this is the case, secrecy produces a government that is more poorly informed, dull-witted, and more corrupt than would be the case if the power of classifying secrets were stripped away. This is because information stamped “secret” cannot be tested and challenged in the forum of democratic debate; it goes unquestioned and tends to be accepted as truth. If the secret is nonsense, it will likely be revealed as such once exposed.