The open secret

Illustration by Babak Radboy

In a performance videotaped for the White House Press Corps dinner, George W Bush makes a jolly show of ransacking the Oval Office — looking under chairs, behind curtains, beneath his desk — searching for the WMDs still not located in Iraq. The assembled press dutifully laugh along at this arrogant joke.

The earliest senses of the word “rumor” — a tumultuous uproar or clamor, as well as a favorable report, or one related to a notable person or thing — are now obsolete. In the meaning that has survived into current usage, rumors denote information distinguished by their dissemination and lack of source or supporting evidence. Today’s rumors are characterized not by their valence (favorable or hostile), but rather by their putative relationship to truth. Lacking an identifiable author(ity), rumors are the informational equivalent of the passive tense, skirting agency without sacrificing the spread of information.

Often, eluding responsibility for talk is a response to censorship, in which case rumor constitutes a species of resistance — the mouthpiece of irrepressible public opinion, a critique of officialdom. The sting of such rumors derives precisely from their being un-authorized: the grapevine forms a screen that protects and permits broadcast. Those familiar with the insinuating jokes of Cairo’s cabbies catch the resonance of deftly timed, lightly delivered hearsay. The recent dearth in political jokes is disturbing not only because we crave immediate wit, but also because, as rumor, this patter suggests officially impossible critique — and we desperately long for that rare trace of political engagement.

In this manner, the political resonance of rumors has been appreciated throughout history by states and subjects alike. In Mamluk-era Cairo, for example, amidst anxieties about political insurrection in 1468 AD, the sultan issued a curfew, an edict banning both carriage of arms and all rumors relating to the uprising. For the sultan, political rumor threatened subversion, much like a brandished sword; both expressions had to be controlled.

Rumors have played a crucial role in modern history. In the 1930s, Vladimir Jabotinsky — one of the intellectual founders of Zionism and a revered figure in the pre- and early history of the state of Israel — proposed a false leak:

It would be wise to have the Zionist Organization openly oppose Arab emigration from Palestine, and then the Arabs would be sure the scheme was not Jewish and that the Jews wanted them to stay in Palestine only to exploit them, and they would want very much to go away to Iraq.

Jabotinsky proposed to spread a particularly perverse sort of rumor, des informations provacateurs. For him the identities “Jew” and “Arab” were so foundational and stable, so predictable and predictive, that the actual positions each would take on a particular issue were foregone conclusions. Identity strictly determined intent. One could, according to this logic, navigate conversation solely on the basis of a speaker’s identity, regardless of (in this case, despite) actual statements. This was politics strictly according to identity over substance, position over message.

Jabotinsky’s proposal is an alarming echo of a joke immortalized by Freud: at a railway station, one Jew addresses another, “If you say you’re going to Krakow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know in fact you’re going to Krakow! So why are you lying to me?” While its humor lies in layers of supposition and racial expectation, the joke acquires another layer of significance by its indexing in Freud’s works under the heading “Truth a lie.” Of course, the inverse — that lies or appearances hold the (often unique) key to truth — is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis.

But in the case of political rumors and open secrets, there is another logic. Here the truth that rumor conveys isn’t in its actual content. Rather, such rumors hold the key to truths about the speaker or listener, and the context in which they are spoken.


We have noted a tactical iteration of rumor, one based on the exigencies of social control whereby rumor becomes a weapon of the weak. But in some cases, there are also strategic reasons to favor the anonymity of rumor. This brings us full circle, from the politics of rumor to rumors in politics, which immediately summon the “open secret.”

The expression’s earliest recorded usage dates from the early 19th century, but the concept clearly predates this. An open secret was also commonly known as a “secret of Polichinelle,” named for the puppet theatre character (later known as Punch). Such dramas depend on a consensual — indeed, contractual — reframing of reality, or suspension of disbelief. To sustain the curiosity that keeps circus-goers coming, we invest in appearances. The reality of the whole enterprise hinges on the necessity of falsehood.

The communal audience created by a shared open secret, however, is quite different in nature from the community created by rumor. While the former is silent, docile, and focused on a central stage, the latter is more active, garrulous and unpredictable (most rumors carry a critical valence — one rushes to claim the merit or reward of eulogistic utterances). With the open secret the operative part — the sense in which the secret is unspoken, even while it is known to all — tends to serve the preservation of an image, usually of the self (individual, corporate, or, especially national), which would otherwise be tainted by that secret’s public acknowledgement.

The open secret is girded by a tacit rule of silence. This silence is socially constitutive in a different fashion than is the talk of rumor, or the telling humor of jokes. In the case of rumors, community emerges on at least two levels: first, in their content, rumors often articulate the norms of a group; second, in their performance, rumors forge links between the interlocutors, revealing shared positions. Open secrets work similarly — to a point; in keeping the secret, individuals share a knowledge they cannot speak and thus a complicity. But since what is common is silence (inaction), the individual members of the open-secret community forsake interaction with one another. In fact, it is precisely this absence of horizontal ties that shores up the open secret. Those who break the pledge of silence, who talk loudly at the theater, calling attention to the artifice of the production, are kicked out.

Open secrets have pragmatic applications. Consider the management of knowledge regarding Israel’s nuclear program. The entire purported value of these unacknowledged weapons as a deterrent threat is predicated on the circulation of secret news. Were this international open secret to be admitted, Israel would have to confront the consequences of its breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and, more seriously, expose preferential treatment, implicating its patron, the United States, in a scandal of global favoritism. Nevertheless, Israel has repeatedly assured the world that it would not be the first, or even the second, “country in the region to use nuclear weapons.” In any case, the effective power of nuclear weapons hinges on the spread of news about their existence among potential adversaries. Here the open secret is at its most essential; the Israeli nuclear arsenal is effective not despite its half-secrecy, but precisely because of it. This configuration communicates without leaving a binding trail, produces an echo without a voice, much less a speaker.

Of the many incarnations of open secrets, perhaps the most remarkable is its increasingly central position in American politics and public discourse. We live in a world not only effectively ruled by open secrets, but also one in which the preferred method of news delivery is the leak. In a culture of frequently Photoshopped realities, something about an apparent breach, an “unintentional” disclosure of facts, seems to assuage general skepticism, and to intimate that the leaked content is closer to truth. Like rumor, both the open secret and the leak have no attributable author. Yet they bear the cachet of privileged information, the frisson of proximity to authority — this is the source of their presumed reliability, their truth effect.

Contemporary politics, especially the US variety, are characterized by their tango with rumor; their disembodied reports are the leitmotif of American electioneering. The media and the public both lust for — indeed, survive on — timely leaks of information regarding everything from congressional underage paramours to torture by paramilitary contractors. This epidemic information flow is anything but frivolous chatter. Leaks and open secrets may reveal important truths — but again, as with the rumor, it is less their content that carries truth, but rather their very existence and currency that betray the opaque workings of contemporary politics.

Rumors ring of diffuse origin and accidental or whimsical propagation; they are expedient for the powerless, threatening to power. By contrast, there is intention behind open secrets; and the “secret” component, precisely because it indicates control over information, intimates that this information is true, since only true information is worth protecting, or so the innocent logic runs.

Now consider the leak: a metaphor of mess, of forces bursting forth, resisting constraint. “Leak” is also increasingly a transitive verb deliberately performed on, and with, information. Ostensibly sabotage, such leaks, like the open secret, are intentional, purposeful. Think of the recent outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame to punish her spouse for criticizing state policy.

While every leak is the explicit instrument of its leaker, a leak can just as well be used to criticize power as to buttress it. One of the most famous US media leaks was Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 publication of The Pentagon Papers, which exposed the systematic misinformation that five American presidents had fed the public in order to garner support for the war in Vietnam. Or earlier this year, the leak that exposed the (real) secret of the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance program. Such leaks have been used to resist state power, but they are increasingly rare; the majority of leaks are subtle instruments of concealing state control while extending it through the careful disembodied planting of information.

“We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
—A senior Bush advisor, on what he termed the “reality-based community” (in 2004)

There is yet another thread in this complex political knot, the larger development in which open secrets are centrally plotted. While neither open secrets nor media leaks are anything new to American politics, their increasing centrality to the political order allows hitherto unthinkable practices to be gradually made normal, even normative. This colonization of normalcy is often in the service of unrestricted power — political and economic.

The power of the open secret also reaches straight to the throat of the individual, under the pretext of the war on terror. Examples include secret CIA prisons strewn across the globe and the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the CIA summarily delivers suspects, uncharged and without recourse to legal council, to states where torture is legal. In the same vein, the Bush administration has engaged in domestic surveillance of both domestic and international telecommunications and monitored bank records — without securing judicial warrants.

In these cases, specific information has bled through the seams of official control. What were once tightly controlled reports were converted into open secrets, at which point they graduated into the public sphere — with or without scandal. The valence of this last step depends upon both the information at hand and the conditions of its outing. Lately we’ve witnessed a series of particularly sinister practices rising to public knowledge under state tutelage; indeed, in the case of the torture of so-called enemy combatants, the state has brashly sought to have the secret inscribed in (obfiscatory) law.

“Change the channel. Change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station.”
—Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, then senior military spokesman in Iraq, upon being asked what he would tell Iraqis who watching televised images of “American and coalition soldiers killing innocent civilians.”

Such transformation — this constantly self-defined reality — revolves, unsurprisingly, around language. Over the past five years, we have witnessed the remarkable genius of the Bush administration as it has redefined practically every term and concept falling under its purview. Thus, global warming was neutralized by the term “climate change,” and a progressive estate tax on the very rich was made a faux-populist threat with the term “death tax.” Similarly, torture in violation of human rights charters has been systematically dismissed in smug phrases that smack of a nuisance at most (“if we have to [we’ll] shout in someone’s face… to prevent another attack” proposed John Ashcroft, while Rush Limbaugh dismissed the Abu Ghraib travesties by comparing them to mere “undergraduate hazing rituals”). As any junior-high reader of Orwell knows, the first step in colonizing normalcy is appropriation of language — and yet the administration’s transparent rhetoric gains popular currency and remains remarkably effective. Why? In this manner, popular language participates in the logic of the open secret.

The public collusion in the inviolability of the open secret is why Bush undertook such an emblematic and arrogant performance for the White House Press Corps. The skit plays with the notion of secrecy, of hiddenness itself, using humor to neutralize a double scandal of deceit (lying about the WMDs) and incompetence (the alleged intelligence failure). It rubbed the press’s nose in the fact that they would still not dare to breach the magic of the “secret” — a silencing quite antithetical to rumor.

Such ingenious manipulation of political language has redefined the terms of debate to ones over which the administration enjoys an advantage, or even exercises a functional monopoly. And while they’ve marshaled everything from foreign wars to sexual scandals to distract from their unprecedented sacking of civil rights (telecommunications privacy, immunity from torture), perhaps their most important accomplishment is having created an atmosphere in which any dissent is considered unpatriotic, if not treasonous. Now not only the average citizen but also the media obey — or worse, internalize — the cheapest and most effective form of social control: self-censorship.

Surely the greatest instance of the shameless shimmy of power around the law (which increasingly stands for an inconvenient Limit on Authoritarian Will) remains the treatment and status of Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Bush administration created a black hole of legal rights when it “unbaptized” detainees as enemy combatants, stripping them of all rights (including any specified by the Geneva Conventions) and effectively of personhood. Without the right to seek legal counsel, to examine the evidence marshaled against them, or even to be charged with a specific offense — much less the right to a trial or appeal of any kind — these captives lack any semblance of a legal subjectivity; they are marooned beyond the law. Such bold incursions of state terror continue, most recently in the historic suspension of habeas corpus (a feature of western law since the early 13th century) for any noncitizens it deems “unlawful combatants.” The public discussion and criticism this provoked, however, was totally eclipsed by a familiar deus ex machina: Congressman Foley’s timely sexual scandal and no less sensational public confessions.

Unspeakable terrors, in other words, have been grotesquely domesticated — in both senses of the word. Not only they have been rendered normal, inserted into the vocabulary of the everyday, but they’re also being brought home to the US, transplanted from enemy combatants — first to noncitizens, but ultimately to Americans.


All in all, the open secret, contrary to the common-sense ring of its name and its currency in public discourse is not a simple, honest release of truth from the grips of secrecy. Instead, the pure spectacle of openness is part of a new, carefully choreographed truth regime — one in the service not of transparency but of increasing social control. It establishes a new frontier in the colonization of sociability, the enclosure of the public’s moral imagination. John Keats lived through similarly trying times, when habeas corpus was suspended in 1817, and despaired

Habeas corpus’d as we are out
of all wonder, curiosity, and fear

Keats’s was a brave, political cry of desperation over the loss of the last legal appeal for the disenfranchised subject. We would do well to cry out, too, rather than become transfixed by the silence of the open secret.