Democratic Secrecy

Panel Convenors:

Dr. Dorota Mokrosinska, Leiden University

Dr. Eric R. Boot, Leiden University

Transparency in politics is the mantra of democratic governance. Despite its revered status, however, many feel that complete transparency would undermine the effective functioning of governments, and that some degree of secrecy is needed. Take the public responses to the WikiLeaks disclosures: many of the disclosures were assessed favorably, but few people defended the idea of total transparency that inspired them. Some cited drawbacks of complete transparency include international tensions in the case of revealing diplomatic confidences, harm to a state’s interests when sensitive information is at stake, and dangers of transparency-overload: discouragement of innovative behavior, scapegoating, proceduralism and rule-obsession.

If both complete secrecy and complete transparency are to be rejected, what ratio of secrecy and transparency in politics should we seek? Arguments that take the upper hand in the debate develop the idea of the “reasons of state” reminiscent of the tradition of “arcana imperii.” Democratic theory offers no systematic assessment of the role of secrecy in a democracy. The few attempts in the literature to defend the use of secrecy in politics do not engage with democratic theory, or only in a negative way, by assuming that democracy and secrecy are antagonistic. Taking transparency as the default position in democratic governance, secrecy is justified by way of exception.

This Panel aims at bridging this gap in democratic theory. We address two sets of issues. The first cluster of topics concerns the role of secrecy in exercising political power. With regard to executive power, we explore the democratic legitimacy of secret governmental programs as well as mechanisms that would enable citizens to hold governments accountable for the programs governments pursue in secret. Among the questions explored here are: (a) How can citizens authorize something they don’t know about?; (b) Given that oversight committees, invested with the task of judging the legitimacy of secret policies, must do their work in camera, how can citizens be assured that the committee members perform their job adequately? With regard to legislative power, the focus is on parliamentary decision-making. The dominant position is the traditional position of deliberative democrats who defend openness in political decision-making processes and emphasize the anti-democratic nature of secrecy. We explore the possibilities of reconciling the deliberative approach with strategic dimensions of democratic decision-making processes. In this context, we investigate secrecy as an element of strategic behavior in democratic decision-making processes understood as situations of interdependent choice. Would secrecy so understood affect the responsibility of representatives for collective decisions? The second set of issues addressed by the Panel concerns the status of unauthorized disclosures. The questions addressed by the Panel include, among others: (a) Can leaks be justified?; (b) Can we understand them as cases of civil disobedience?; (c) Disclosures of classified government information involve both civil servants and the news media: are the obligations of these two groups regarding classified government information the same or different and should they be held accountable for unauthorized disclosures to the same or to a different degree?


We invite papers addressing the role of secrecy in democratic governance. Possible topics for papers include but are not limited to:

  1. What ratio of secrecy and transparency in politics should we seek?
  2. Can state secrecy be democratically authorized?
  3. How can governments keep secrets, and at the same time account for them?
  4. Oversight committees: Who guards the guardians?
  5. How does secrecy relate to the values and aims of democratic deliberation?
  6. How does secret parliamentary deliberations/bargaining affect political representation?
  7. Secrecy and strategic dimensions of democratic decision-making
  8. Political secrecy and the “reason of state” approach
  9. Transparency, the media and political accountability
  10. Under what conditions can unauthorized disclosures be justified?
  11. Ought there to be a right to whistleblowing?
  12. How does whistleblowing relate to civil disobedience? Is Edward Snowden a civil disobedient?
  13. Are there cases where whistleblowing is not merely permissible, but also obligatory?
  14. Are the obligations (regarding classified government information) of whistleblowers and the media who publish the classified documents the same or different? Should they be held accountable for unauthorized disclosures to the same or to a different degree?
  15. Is WikiLeaks a blessing or a curse for democracy?

If you are interested in participating in the workshop, please send an abstract of approx. 500 words by 20 May 2016 to Dorota Mokrosinska: and Eric Boot: On acceptance, all speakers will be asked to pre-circulate their papers (5.000 – 8.000 words) amongst participants by 20 August 2016. We will allocate 50 minutes to each paper, with presentations of 20 minutes and 30 minutes of discussion.


Abstracts submission: 20 May 2016

Notification of acceptance: 5 June 2016.

Final papers: 20 August 2016