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How democratic are state secrets?

Transparency is seen as an important value for democratic government policy. Does that mean that we should do away with state secrets, such as confidential information involving intelligence agencies and political deals made behind closed doors? Political philosopher and ERC grant recipient Dorota Mokrosinska is studying the relation between state secrets and democracy.

Mokrosinska has a background in sociology and philosophy. ‘As a political philosopher, I look at the ethical side of political life,’ she explains. ‘Do the private affairs of public figures, such as Berlusconi’s sexual excesses or Obama’s earlier use of cocaine, concern the public? Are we obliged to comply with unjust laws? How is taxation different from theft? And does Wikileaks trigger democratic citizenship or does it obstruct government mechanisms?’

Government secrecy

An important topic for Mokrosinska is secrecy as practised by governments. Prime examples of this are the work of intelligence services, espionage, diplomatic discretion and closed-door political dealings. ‘On the one hand, as a society we do not doubt the importance of transparency in a democracy. But on the other, certain information constitutes state secrets, and some political decisions are made behind closed doors. So there’s a certain amount of friction here: How can we monitor our democratically elected government if that very government keeps things hidden from us? How democratic is secrecy?’

ERC Starting Grant

To allow her to investigate this question, European Research Council (ERC) awarded Mokrosinska a Starting Grant in 2014. This is a five-year grant that allows the researcher to set up their own line of research. ‘It’s an extraordinary opportunity, because few people are working on this topic, and no theoretical framework exists yet.’

Democracy suspended

‘For most people, secrecy is by definition undemocratic. If we allow information to be held back, then it is a necessary evil.’ It simply isn’t possible to give citizens access to intelligence or military information without also giving it to one’s enemies. ‘Secrecy is seen as a temporary suspension of our democratic principles. But I think that in some cases secrecy actually is a legitimate mode of democratic government. I want to use my research to clarify this.’

Well on the way

The research project first started a year and a half ago. ‘In addition to me, there are also a postdoc researcher and a PhD student working on the project. We will soon be organising our second international conference, the first publications are coming up, and we’re also well on the way with the interdisciplinary volume of papers.’

Practical application

Certain parties outside the academic world have also shown interest in the project. ‘For example, we have been approached by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, and we have also established contact with the Huis voor Klokkenluiders [a whistleblowers’ organisation].’ Mokrosinska hopes that at a later stage, together with these partners, she will be able to work out the practical implications of her results. ‘If we show that secrecy is indeed justifiable, that casts a different light on the present forms of state secrets and the safeguarding of information by the government. That has implications for who we hold accountable for secrecy, as well as things like how we deal with the leaking of state secrets.’

Tien years of ERC

Dorota Mokrosinska is conducting her research on ‘Democratic Secrecy’ using a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This year marks ERC’s anniversary. Over the course of the last ten years, roughly 70 researchers and/or research groups at Leiden University have been awarded ERC grants. As we approach the celebration of ERC’s anniversary on 23 June, we will be highlighting a number of our ERC research projects.