At first glance, it’s hard to imagine a less visual film subject than secrecy. By definition, the topic is about what people are forbid- den to see, with sources who, by profession and inclination, won’t say anything about it. Still, secrecy has a grip on us, on our political being, on our imaginary lives, on our sense of privacy. This was where we began our film, “Secrecy,” convinced that it was a central topic of our time, one that each of us can relate to. And yet, we were utterly baffled about how we were going to bring it to life.

To make visible this rather abstract set of concerns, we soon realized we’d need specifics. We wanted to present the most forceful case possible and not a series of casual remarks or the embarrassed silence and turned faces that accompany ambush questions. So again and again we asked the people with whom we spoke to take their best shot, to choose the instances that best illustrated their most central and compelling arguments.

Then we dug in. For officials with the National Security Agency (NSA), that meant taking us back to Beirut, when a 1983 press disclosure about NSA monitoring meant the loss of a crucial electronic source. The Marine barrack attack soon followed.

For Washington Post special projects reporter Barton Gellman, the conundrum involved with press disclosure of “secret” information means something very different: it results in the impossibility of citizens being able to decide issues central to democratic deliberation when they don’t know what’s actually happening. If the press obediently avoided all secret topics, the consequence during the past few years would have been that the public lacked information about the fundamental elements of the Bush administration’s war on terror, including the following issues and government actions:

  • Reliance on questionable intelligence as a reason to invade Iraq
  • Evidence that the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq led to no such weapons being found
  • The United States’s engagement in “extraordinary rendition” of terrorism suspects
  • Information that bin Laden had escaped from Tora Bora.

Gellman observes that information about each of these situations was classified as secret. If journalists reported only the official line, the American people would not have understood many of the most important elements of the conduct of the war on terror.

Such issues would be at the core of our film. Now, our challenge was how to tell this as a visual story. We began filming in quite a traditional way: We shot the first interview, one we did not end up using, outdoors on a brilliant fall day on the Chesapeake coast. We were speaking with a retired national security official who once bore responsibility for guarding the most dangerous knowledge — of nuclear weapons. But we soon realized that there was something profoundly wrong about trying visually to enter into the world of secrets with birds chirping and the water lapping at the shore.

Stitching the Film Together

After giving a lot of thought to next steps and experimenting with some of our ideas, we realized that we needed a more hermetic environment — the controlled, highly focused lighting of a sound stage. No books or shelves, or birds or boats, in the background. What our film needed was the most artificial space we could construct. We set up a rearprojection screen, with the background scene alluding sometimes directly, sometimes metaphorically, to the world of the person being interviewed. This sealed-off volume became the reference point of the film, intimate and a little disturbing, disconnected from the outside and yet all the while wandering through questions of agents and betrayals, wars and information, the power and the impact of secrecy on those caught up in it.

The intense, intimate setting for the interview worked to set the tone we were after. Crucially, too, we decided to work with an editor and a composer from the get-go. Instead of collecting all the materials first and then editing, we decided to make the film grow out as it needed to, so we wouldn’t push our interviews and materials into a predetermined mold. With our editor, Chyld King, coming on board, we began editing immediately after our first sound-stage interview. Our first edited piece was a few minutes long. About the same time, we started working with composer John Kusiak and thought together about how we wanted his score to interact with the film, discussing such things as at what point individual instruments needed to stand out and when we wanted more of a progression.

Secrecy resonates with everyone. But we were not at all sure that in interviewing professionals they would think — or want to discuss — how layered the political, technical, or military secrecy was on personal associations. On this score, we needn’t have worried. Just about everyone, whatever their position or politics, had rather strong views about the ways that secrecy and power — even the taboos of secrecy and sexuality — thread inevitably around one another in our imagination.

Knowing that our interview footage would be so highly confined, we wanted a way to let this other, more personal dimension of secrecy crack through the more deliberate, intended meanings. It was thinking about this problem that led us to animation, not purely as illustrative of what we were not allowed to see but as invoking a more associative kind of imagery. Animation, mostly of an almost wood-block expressionist kind led by Ruth Lingford, served as this underground lava stream, bursting out, intermittently, from the first moments of the film all the way through to the end.

Telling Secrecy Stories

Our next decision making involved whom we would interview. From the beginning, we aimed to show a world of secrecy as seen by those in it and not by pundits celebrating or castigating from their perches. Nor did we want famous former heads of agencies or high-ranking politicians who had already spoken so frequently on issues of public policy that they were likely to quote themselves — or return to justify actions they had taken. Instead, we wanted to get a sense of how the people on the ground moved in the shadow world as agents and analysts.

In the film, we hear from a former agent, Melissa Mahle, who served in many postings across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, including years as CIA station chief in Jerusalem. Our other agency interlocutor, James Bruce, worked both in the Intelligence and Operations Directorates; among other things, he helped run a group on Foreign Denial and Deception (which is a fabulous title that means denying information to other intelligence services and deceiving them). He took a very hard-line stance on press leaks. Finally, from the NSA we found that agency’s long-time head of information security, Meyer J. “Mike” Levin, a senior guardian of the secrets of the most secretive of government agencies and recipient of the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.

Speaking about the valuable role the press plays in disclosing certain secrets, we heard from equally passionate soldiers in the secrecy wars, who were just as persuaded that the future of democracy depended on arresting the helterskelter increase in classified information. These include Steven Aftergood, the head of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a group committed to tracking, analyzing and opposing the steady increase of classified information. Joining him as a critic of secrecy is Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive (NSA) at George Washington University. Using the Freedom of Information Act, this NSA (not the infinitely larger government three-letter agency) has published declassified documentation of a vast range of events — from the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960’s through contemporary events. These documents recast our understanding of turning points in recent history.

We are often asked if we had trouble getting access. Though there were very difficult parts of making “Secrecy,” access was, perhaps surprisingly, not one of them. Our goal was not to expose this or that technical detail — for example, we were not out to publicize how high, fast or far a particular fighter jet could fly — but to pass along a sense of the system of secrecy itself: How does classification function? What effect does it have on those inside and outside of the system? What core issues are involved in deliberative democracy at the intersection of national security, press freedom, and the separation of powers?

Bit by bit, we found ways to get at some of these epoch struggles. We were able to show what the stakes are and make the secrecy wars visible as we shuttled between the political and the personal. We knew that the film couldn’t work as we wanted it to if it did not find a way to get at how the rubber met the road, and this meant demonstrating how these opposing positions, passionately held as they were, played out in the broader world.

So we chose two remarkable and hugely influential Supreme Court cases — and followed what they meant for the structure of secrecy. One case, Reynolds v. United States, launched secrecy in the early years of the cold war; the other, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, is urgently contemporary, still being fought as it shapes and reshapes boundaries between the President, the courts, international law, and secrecy. We ended up wending both of these cases through the film; they take battles over classified information and give them a human, personal dimension.

Throughout the long process of making this film, we have intentionally not proceeded as if the issue of national security secrecy could be tied up neatly or “solved” with an easy set of steps. We see these issues of secrecy as being tough, not only for the United States, and our film recognizes that they remain among the hardest we face as we struggle to bolster democracy in a time of pervasive fear.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss are the directors of the documentary film, “Secrecy.” This article is adapted from their directors’ statement, written in January 2008 and on the film’s Web site,

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