The US is a nation foundering in a vast sea of secrets, with government officials showing little regard for the damage that is done to a democratic republic by withholding millions upon millions of documents from the people.

Some of these excessive secrets relate to current events, such as the unwillingness of the Obama administration to explain its legal reasoning for drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. Great harm is inflicted on the public trust from refusing to release the parameters and rationale for the programme.

The not-unreasonable assumption among many Americans is simply that there is no legal coherence to the policy, at least not one that can be defended in the court of public opinion.

This image of a hubristic US has its own negative consequences. It feeds not only anti-Americanism abroad, but also a sense of alienation at home. Many Americans see democracy as not only short-circuited by all the manipulative political techniques bought by billionaires, but by an intentional starving of an informed electorate denied factual sustenance by the government.

This alienation, in turn, is feeding the heated controversy that has played out this week over NBC’s disclosure of the Obama administration’s white paper, which was provided to the Congress summarising what is contained in a longer classified version of the legal arguments that justify the killing of al-Qaeda suspects, including Americans.

The Justice Department’s white paper said it is lawful for “an informed, high-level official” of the US government to authorise the killing of an American if the target is a ranking figure in al-Qaeda, who poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” and if capture is not feasible.

The disclosure of the white paper has heated up the debate inside the US about how such “targeted killings” are done and why the Obama administration has resisted a full discussion of the practice and any legal safeguards that might be applied.

Sometimes, the motivation is sinister, such as when governments want to lead the American people into warfare and do so by inundating them with propaganda. A decade ago, President Bush applied that strategy to get his war of choice in Iraq.

Remarkably, despite the many deceptions surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most severe punishments have been meted out to Americans who have exposed the truth, not those who have hidden it. For instance, Pvt. Bradley Manning is likely to spend much of his young life in prison for releasing government information to Wikileaks, while senior Bush administration officials who helped spin a giant web of lies have escaped any meaningful accountability.

But the secrecy problem is deeper than these more recent events. On Tuesday, I spent a day at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, poring through files that date back three decades. I discovered that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that I filed years ago have failed to gain the release of thousands of pages of documents, which probably never should have been secret in the 1980s, let alone in the second decade of the 21st Century.

Ironically, some of my FOIAs related to Reagan’s aggressive use of propaganda and disinformation to herd the American public behind his policies in Central America and the Near East.

So, the American people are even denied the facts about how they were manipulated 30 years ago. And this hidden history is not irrelevant to the present. Not only were Reagan’s state-of-the-art techniques for controlling public opinion passed on to subsequent administrations, but some of the false narratives that Reagan’s spin-masters twirled continue to misinform public policy to this day, such as misleading perceptions of how the conflict in Afghanistan originated.

The interminable delay in releasing the true historical record also means that some of this history will be lost forever. Many documents, even when they are finally released, do not clear up all the mysteries.

When President Barack Obama began his administration by releasing some secret Justice Department rationalisations for torture, he came under intense criticism from Republicans and their right-wing media allies. The experience seems to have chastened him.

There are always plenty of “tough-guy” reasons why releasing information is tantamount to helping the “enemy.” Excessive secrecy breeds so much suspicion that it erodes acceptance of secrecy in those moments when it is truly necessary.

The writer is an investigative reporter and has authored a book titled America’s Stolen Narrative. This article has been reproduced from Middle East Online.