The best books on U.S. national security culture and the exposure of secrets

Hannah Gurman and Kaeten Mistry Author Of Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy
By Hannah Gurman and Kaeten Mistry

The Books I Picked & Why

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

By Daniel Ellsberg

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

Why this book?

Arguably the most famous national security whistleblower in U.S. history, Daniel Ellsberg became a household name for releasing the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret military study of the Vietnam War, in 1971. Secrets is a fascinating account of how a quintessential Washington insider became the archetypal outsider and, as a result, faced the prospect of decades in prison for passing national security information to the press in the public interest. Ellsberg’s story reveals how the decision to “blow the whistle” is often long and fraught, while knowing the wrath of the state that awaits. A series of plot twists gives a sense of intrigue and suspense to the outcome of the case. Widely considered a principled whistleblower today, Ellsberg’s fate could have been dramatically different and had important legacies for whistleblowing and press freedom.


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Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution

By Hannah Arendt

Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution

Why this book?

At its core, whistleblowing is an act of truth-telling, often in response to official misrepresentation and lies. While not explicitly about whistleblowing, Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay, “Lying in Politics” is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the subject. Written in the wake of the Pentagon Papers disclosure, it situates the official lies of the Vietnam War within a broader phenomenon of political propaganda. Exploring how propaganda aimed at the public ultimately took hold within senior policymaking circles, it reveals the blurry line between official lies and self-deception. Challenging simple precepts about whistleblowing and public transparency, Arendt explores whether or not and why knowledge of the facts actually makes a difference. Along with the broader collection of essays in Crises of the Republic, this piece offers uncanny insight into post-truth politics and the breakdown of democracy in our day.


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Secrecy: The American Experience

By Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Secrecy: The American Experience

Why this book?

A Democrat patriarch and long-time Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan led a congressional committee in the early 1990s recommending dramatic reductions in the size and scale of government secrecy. Moynihan even penned an opinion piece in the New York Times questioning whether there was still a need for the CIA. Secrecy is an offshoot of Moynihan's committee report that delves into the history of state secrecy in the United States from the early twentieth century, showing its corrosive effect on Cold War policymaking and society as a whole. The book is part of an unprecedented attempt by a political establishment heavyweight to change the debate on national security secrecy. That it had no meaningful impact is profoundly telling.


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The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

By Gregg Herken

The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

Why this book?

Whistleblowers rely on the press to disseminate their disclosures. In matters of national security, however, the press has a long history of close personal and professional bonds with the government that has curbed revelations. The Georgetown Set offers a fascinating glimpse into the small circle of elite officials, journalists, publishers, and public intellectuals who gathered for cocktail and dinner parties in their high-end neighborhood of Washington, DC. In addition to giving a fly-on-the-wall sense of how Cold War policies and public opinion were made, Herken’s book illuminates the individual and cultural shifts that contributed to the rise of national security disclosures in the 1960s and 1970s. This history is essential for understanding how the evolving dynamics between elite politicians and the press continue to shape the culture of whistleblowing and accountability today.


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Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

By Frank Snepp

Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

Why this book?

CIA officer Frank Snepp was one of the last American officials to leave Vietnam in 1975. But when he published a damning critique of the U.S. war effort in a book (A Decent Interval), it ignited a controversy that was widely covered in the press and led all the way to the Supreme Court. Snepp was charged with causing 'irreparable harm' to national security and ordered to surrender all profits from the publication. His account of the events around the court case are of course subjective but nonetheless speaks to a central paradox around the first amendment: freedom of speech is essentially suspended for national security officials. The legacy of Snepp’s case continues to cast a long shadow, affecting individuals as varied as Edward Snowden and John Bolton in our day.


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