US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

In 10,000 words published in the London Review of Books, veteran reporter Seymour Hersh recently detailed the plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. According to Hersh, it was an international conspiracy, involving the Pakistan government, the Obama administration, Navy SEAL Team 6 and a menagerie of characters seeking to cover for the Pakistani officials who sold bin Laden out. It was an odd, anonymously sourced story — "a messy omelet of a piece," wrote Jack Shafer for Politico — one that resisted fact-checking and lacked internal consistency.

Hersh, famous for his reporting on the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, is partly to blame for indulging his conspiratorial side (something he's been doing for the better part of a decade). But the Obama administration is also to blame for contributing to an atmosphere in which conspiracism flourishes.

The Obama administration had promised it would be "the most open and transparent in history." Yet in President Barack Obama's six-and-a-half years in office, he has ratcheted up the secrecy levels in the White House, shrouding government operations behind layers of security clearances and restrictions, limiting press access and wielding the Espionage Act with a breadth rarely seen since its passage in 1917.

Obama, of course, did not inaugurate this state of affairs. The modern secrecy state arose alongside the modern security state during World War II and the early Cold War. Protecting nuclear secrets required shielding whole bodies of knowledge behind the curtain of classification; the end of the Cold War only accelerated this trend. Historian Peter Galison, who has suggested the U.S. is producing more classified information than unclassified, calculated in 2004 that there were enough classified documents in the U.S. to fill the Library of Congress.

That lack of transparency doesn't just breed conspiracy-mindedness — it breeds actual conspiracies. The CIA, formed in 1947, attempted to assassinate foreign leaders, fomented revolutions and tested LSD and other drugs on American citizens. John Kennedy used the IRS to go after his political opponents, as did Richard Nixon. More recently the National Security Agency was caught collecting data on American citizens — information only made public when Edward Snowden smuggled it out of the classified world.

Why does this matter? Conspiracy theories do not weaken in the face of contrary evidence, after all. Once someone has decided the moon landing was faked or 9/11 was an inside job or Obama was born in Kenya, there's little that will shake him from that belief. But evidence can limit the scope of conspiracy-mindedness, keeping it confined to the fringes. We haven't heard much from birthers since the release of Obama's long-form birth certificate, not because they don't still exist but because no one pays them any attention.

But if tamping down conspiracies isn't reason enough to be more transparent, perhaps this is: Conspiracy theories don't damage democracy — secrecy does. Obama knows this. It's why he promised transparency, and why, with a year and a half left in office, he should do everything in his power to make good on that pledge.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report