Why would an experienced grownup make such a promise with the expectation of holding to it no matter what the new information turns out to be: and actually feel obliged to hold to it when keeping these particular secrets turns out to look very problematic indeed? Well, often that is a condition of employment in a job you need or very much want. And I've already noted the strong career disincentives to breaking that condition once made, in the national security field in particular.
Yet the federal employee is also a citizen, moreover a public servant, who has sworn an oath to support the Constitution. That might seem to create a special feeling of obligation to tell the truth, even secret truth, when one learns -- by virtue of the very access to secrets that one's promise has permitted -- that domestic or international laws are secretly being broken, or Congress and the public are being deceived on matters of war and peace, or rights guaranteed by the Constitution are being violated in secret. Why does the demand and offer of secrecy seem almost universally to override such considerations?
I suggest that there are psycho-social aspects of promises made under these circumstances -- bearing on self-image and self-respect, as well as status and acceptance in the larger society -- that especially inhibit violating these particular promises. The circumstances I have in mind apply to "secret societies" ranging from the Mafia or associations like the Masons to the CIA, and much more broadly to the Departments of Defense and State and the multitude of corporate contractors that do classified work for the Pentagon and the "intelligence community."
When one has promised secrecy as a condition not just of routine employment but of membership in a prestigious group or organization or an "elite" sub-group, violating that pledge is not like breaking an ordinary contract or agreement between two equal individuals or strangers. The opportunity to make such a promise is offered, and felt and accepted, as an honor: something to be proud of, a basis for respect among those who know of it (who are respected by oneself.)
The very offer, especially once accepted, is a mark of worth, of membership in a valued group, possession of a valuable identity. It is a sign of being trusted by other members of the prestigious group: a token of being perceived by them as trustworthy, worthy of membership, of being "one of them," a "brother" or "member of the family." In contrast, little of this is true of an ordinary contract or promise, made for a consideration, entered into for mutual benefit between two parties.
The demand for secrecy, in the cases considered here, accompanies and is an essential part of the opportunity to join the group, to serve its purposes along with the other members, an invitation not made to just anyone who might wish to join. The invitation, and the acceptance of the promise of secrecy, is the result of cooption, often after a process of initiation, successive tests of various sorts, observation, after which one has been judged worthy of having one's promise of secrecy believed. It is like having a high credit rating established: in this case, one's "credibility rating," or more specifically, one's reliability for discretion.
Not only the membership in the group, but the specific acceptance of one's loyalty -- to the group, to its purposes, to the other members, and its secrets-conveys and expresses a new, prestigious status, a positive identity, a source of self-respect and pride and a basis for the respect and deference of others.
The vetting or "clearance" required for the offer and the special access based on acceptance of the promise are a credential and a requirement not only for a particular job but for membership in an elite, a prestigious sub-grouping. (That in turn may be the opportunity for "networking" contacts and advancement on which a whole career and social identity may be based.)
Breaking the pledge of secrecy in way that is not tacitly tolerated or authorized by group leaders or practices is generally the surest and fastest way both to lose that credential and to be expelled from the group. And to expelled from one such group for that reason means not just the loss of a particular job or contract or benefit but the equivalent of a loss of credit-rating, a shameful bankruptcy. The result is like a general denial of credit, or in this case to a denial of any other jobs or career which require reliable secrecy. These include most influential or prestigious positions in the broad field of national security employment (and perhaps other professions that rely on discretion, for example law, medicine, police and the priesthood). Thus there is a loss of a particular kind of social status and sense of self-importance.
Moreover, it is likely to accompanied by internalized feelings of shame and guilt. This applies not only to groups that are generally admired but to secret organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Mafia that are illegal in the nation at large but highly respected and self-respecting in their local regions or neighborhoods. To "betray" the valued group is to prove unworthy of the trust placed in you, to disappoint their recognition that you deserved to be one of them, their belief that you were one of them at heart.
For the Mafiosi "men of honor" (interestingly, the title of William Colby's memoir of his life in the CIA is "Honorable Men") the agreement to keep secrets is so central that the oath of membership includes the explicit acceptance of ultimate sanctions-death or worse, including "burning in hell," for oneself and even one's family -- if the obligation of silence to outsiders, omert-, is broken. Thus is expressed loyalty to the organization that goes above loyalty to one's own life and even to the lives of one's family members.
This represents an extreme, but even for gangsters that overriding physical danger doesn't entirely eclipse the additional threat that applies as well to other groups throughout society, the fear of psycho-social punishment for "spilling secrets," "washing dirty linen in public," "ratting" on one's team. It is a fear not only of expulsion and ostracism but of one's own awareness that outsiders as well as team-mates will feel that these consequences are deserved: and fear of one's own sympathy for such judgments, a sense that the reaction is understandable and appropriate. The "snitch" is an object of intense contempt not only from gang members but even from their adversaries, the police: an uncanny revulsion that the "informer" is painfully inclined to share about himself.
I am suggesting that in the national security bureaucracy in the executive branch (and now, regrettably, the intelligence committees of Congress as well), the secrecy "oaths" (actually, agreements, conditions of employment or access) have the same psycho-social meaning for participants as the Mafia code of omert-, with the difference that the required "silence to outside authorities" forbids truthful disclosure not to the state or police but to other branches of government and the public.
To be sure, the sanction for telling embarrassing Executive secrets to congressional committees that control the budget or to voters through the media is not gang-style execution or physical retaliation on one's family. But it doesn't have to be, to be comparably effective. For President's Men -- a prized self-image throughout the national security bureaucracy -- the prospective loss of all clearances amounts to social death. (Recall the public stripping of J. Robert Oppenheimer's clearances in 1954, from which he is said never fully to have recovered psychologically.) Moreover, in this field these feelings of dissolution of trust and social ties are amplified by the foreseeable conclusion in the larger society -- however unjustified -- that in breaking secrecy you have proven unpatriotic, and that you have deliberately or inadvertently risked or sacrificed the security of your nation and perhaps the lives of fellow countrymen.
The secret-breaker is not trusted even to be in social contact with their former associates, lest he or she overhear more secrets that might be leaked, or infer them from intimate interactions, facial expressions. Nor would continued association be compatible with the extreme stigmatization that the group requires of violations of its secrecy. To allow the secret-teller to be an accepted social partner in any context at all -- meals, parties, meetings, receptions -- would suggest that their behavior was not incompatible with "being one of us," with the high character that is demanded and expected. To accept any friendly or even neutral interaction at all with such a renegade would raise questions about one's own loyalty to the group and commitment to keeping its secrets.
Thus what is most feared by most prospective secret-tellers -- with good reason -- is social isolation, ostracism, exile, if they reveal the secrets of the group. If they are found out, they can expect (though not all of them do, beforehand) the loss of friends and relationships, more or less irrevocably, as well as loss of job and career. For someone like myself who has spent a dozen years doing classified work -- virtually every colleague I knew during that time had a security clearance, which could be jeopardized by any suggestion that they did not entirely condemn my disclosure of the Pentagon Papers -- that means the loss of all your professional friends, semi-permanently. It is as if you were exiled to another country or had emigrated: or as if they had, all of them.