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Enclosing Executive Secrecy, Arguments & Practices in the German Bundestag

Parliaments in democratic systems serve as the people’s representatives, legislators and overseers of the executive. They have the power to define the framework in which the executive can act and must report about its action. For parliaments to fulfil their roles, though, they depend on access to information. Executive secrecy is an obvious impediment. How, then, do parliamentary actors try to reconcile secrecy and the normative demands of an open, democratic society? The study investigates their arguments, conflicts and patterns of agreement around this topic for the case of Germany. Using the example of two case studies – intelligence agencies and Public-Private Partnerships, the empirical analysis shows that substantive rationales are the main reference point for actors’ acceptance of executive secrecy. In their view, secrecy may be legitimate where it serves a specific goal. Information should be kept secret if its disclosure would obstruct achieving that goal. However, references to instrumentality are highly contentious in political practice. Procedural legitimation has the potential to fill the gap left by the contestation of substantive legitimation: legislation sets framework conditions ex-ante, and usually in a more generalized way, while parliamentary scrutiny works ex-post and deals with concrete issues, cases and conflicts.

Dorothee Riese
29 June 2021
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