Official secrecy

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Excessive government secrecy
Official silence
Lack of transparency in government
Government cover-up
Complicity of government in obstruction of justice

Data of special government interest may be considered unsuitable for public disclosure. The range of information deemed as secret is from all government information to specific information in foreign affairs, about criminal, espionage or terrorist activities, and about military affairs. Official secrets may mask government or political activity detrimental to the public interest or which would not be supported by a concensus. By keeping certain facts secret a government may be able to indoctrinate the public more successfully in its favour or achieve greater control over the nation in general. Insofar as official secrets are limited for access to officials directly concerned with them, they create an elite which may also be a technocracy. Because official secrets are restricted to a minimal number of people, where there is a leakage (especially to a foreign power) constituted by action from a legitimate member of that group, discovery of the leakage may easily be delayed because there is not sufficient general knowledge of the situation.

Governments excessively classify information as secret or restricted, and have a strong unwillingness to divulge sensitive activities. This leads to policy failures, abuses and embarrassment; it may also mask corruption or the leaking of confidential data either to a foreign power or to business or private interests. Government secrecy is demonstrated by the use of secret police and by espionage and surveillance activity at home and abroad. It may also involve the use of censorship and propaganda. Government secrecy at all levels may lead to citizen alienation or apathy and may be used to reinforce political injustice and inequality and repression, leading to government control and to dictatorship.

Secrecy also exists in intergovernmental organizations wherever personnel are obliged to sign contracts stipulating that they will not publish anything concerning the inner workings of their organization. Such restrictions protect inefficiencies and abuses. These may continue and eventually cause some lack of confidence. On the national level, governmental bureaux and departments may routinely withhold information from the public. This should be distinguished from secrets of state or official secrets. On the local levels of governments the withholding of information may also be common, particularly surrounding financial activities such as municipal bond issues, land use and expenditures of public funds, and concerning wrong-doing by party functionaries in office.


In the USA in 1994 it was estimated that the government classified approximately 7 million documents per year. Literally billions of documents are classified as secret at a cost in storage to federal agencies of billions of dollars. In the USA four levels of classification are used: confidential, secret, top secret and codeword. The latter classification provides for many hundreds of independent classifications.

The circumstances of the British sinking of the Argentinian ship, the 'Belgrano' illustrates secrecy in a parliamentary democracy. In Latin American and the Philippines for example, governments make little attempt to explain the disappearance of citizens. Attacks on a refugee camp in Lebanon remain unexplained by the government guarantor of its protection (Israel). Documents may remain classified for excessively long periods as is illustrated by the fact that the UK still keeps secret the identity of "Jack-the-Ripper".


All governments, whatever their political complexion, are tempted at one time or another to suppress or distort the truth to avoid scandal, humiliation or electoral defeat.

Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
06.03.2018 – 22:21 CET