Debates about how best to check executive branch abuses of secrecy focus on three sets of actors that have access to classified information and that traditionally have served—in one way or another—as our surrogates: congressional committees, federal courts, and leakers or whistleblowers. These actors provide only limited checks on the Executive’s misuse of secrecy, however. Most legal scholarship bemoans their flaws but concludes that the status quo is the best that we can do. This article challenges this account, arguing that there is a different set of actors—a set of unsung “secrecy surrogates”—that can provide additional checks on the quality and legality of the Executive’s classified operations in the cyber, election, and counter-terrorism settings.

Technology companies, states and localities, and foreign allies have become an integral part of U.S. national security operations and enjoy some critical advantages over our traditional surrogates. These actors possess expertise about—and in some cases control—national security-related targets, making them essential partners for the Executive. Further, these surrogates have incentives to check the Executive in ways that advance the public law values of accuracy, accountability, and legality. Finally, unlike leakers, these unsung secrecy surrogates can challenge the Executive without revealing government secrets. These surrogates can only check government abuses of secrecy as long as the Executive requires their cooperation, but they have begun to supplement our traditional surrogates in important ways.

This article maps the growing role of these unsung secrecy surrogates, argues that they are well-situated to address some persistent secrecy problems, and proposes ways to preserve and enhance the surrogates’ position in the secrecy ecosystem in the future. 

Ashley S. Deeks, Secrecy Surrogates, 106 Virginia Law Review, 1395–1477 (2020).