The History and Future of State Secrecy

May 23, 2024  | 6pm ET

Lecture at GHI Washington | Speaker: Matthew Connelly (Columbia University / the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge)

2024 Spring Lecture Series: Knowledge in the Shadows: Intelligence, Hidden Pasts, and Historians in the U.S. and Germany

Please join us for the final lecture in our Spring 2024 series focusing on intelligence history. For its first one hundred and fifty years, the U.S. government had relatively few secrets, and subsidized the free flow of information to ensure democratic accountability. But all that changed after Pearl Harbor, with the rise of the dark state. The last two decades have witnessed particularly dramatic growth in government secrecy, at the same time that declassification has all but collapsed. Now that so much is secret, it has become all but impossible to protect truly dangerous information. Connelly explores the policies and practices that gave rise to the current crisis, above all presidents’ determination to preserve sovereign power over “national security information.” The digital archiving methods that were supposed to stop unauthorized leaks instead gave rise to Wikileaks, and the wholesale destruction of the documentary record has made it all but impossible even for historians to hold public officials to account. But new data science methods now make it possible to systematically analyze patterns and anomalies in state secrecy and show not only what the government did not want us to know, but why.

The lecture will begin promptly at 6:30pm ET. A light reception will preceed the talk from 6:00pm to 6:30pm ET.

About the Lecture Series


Knowledge in the Shadows: Intelligence, Hidden Pasts, and Historians in the U.S. and Germany

With the 2024 spring lecture series at the German Historical Institute Washington, we cordially invite you on a journey through the captivating research field of “Intelligence History.” Featuring leading scholars in the field, our four lectures offer insights into the covert realm of classified information, clandestine knowledge, and power dynamics and the role these have played in the history of the Americas and Germany in the Twentieth Century. To what extent have secret agencies and their practices of gathering information influenced international politics and the course of history? On the home front, how have the delicate relationships between secrecy and democracy evolved over time, evident in public debates and the treatment of individuals today known as “whistleblowers”? The lectures delve into these questions, shedding light on the intricate interplay between secrecy, democracy, and their impact on society. Furthermore, the lectures address the meta-level of research, highlighting the epistemological challenges faced by intelligence historians. How do scholars navigate inaccessible archives and information? What innovative perspectives, (digital) methods and data-driven approaches promise new insights into the world of secret services and declassified files? These inquiries form the cornerstone of our lectures, exploring new horizons in intelligence history. All lectures will be recorded and made available for viewing.

Organized by Jana Keck and Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş (GHI Washington) in cooperation with the International Intelligence History Association, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, German Association for American Studies, and International Spy Museum


A Frank and Open Discussion about the Secret World of Spying February 22, 2024 | 6pm ET
Alexis Albion (International Spy Museum)

From Abundant Papers to Limited Pixels: Digitization and Intelligence Reduction in the Brazilian Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI) in the late 1970s March 21, 2024 | 6pm ET
Debora Gerstenberger (University of Cologne)

Spy vs. Spy: West German Counterintelligence and GDR Espionage April 18, 2024 | 6pm ET
Michael Wala (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The History and Future of State Secrecy May 23, 2024 | 6pm ET
Matthew Connelly (Columbia University)

About the Speaker


Matthew Connelly is a professor of international and global history at Columbia University, and director of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. Connelly is also the principal investigator of History Lab, a project that uses data science to analyze state secrecy. His publications include A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria's Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, and The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals about America’s Top Secrets. Connelly received his B.A. from Columbia in 1990 and earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1997.