Surveillance, Secrecy, and the Search for Meaningful Accountability

36 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2014 Last revised: 19 Jul 2015

See all articles by Sudha Setty

Sudha Setty

Western New England University School of Law

Date Written: 2014


One of the most intractable problems in the debate around maintaining the rule of law while combating the threat of terrorism is the question of secrecy and transparency. In peace time, important tenets to the rule of law include transparency of the law, limits on government power, and consistency of the law as applied to individuals in the polity. Yet the post-9/11 decision-making by the Bush and Obama administrations has been characterized be excessive secrecy that stymies most efforts to hold the government accountable for its abuses. Executive branch policy with regard to detention, interrogation, targeted killing and surveillance are kept secret, and that secrecy has been largely validated by a compliant judiciary that has dismissed almost all suits challenging human and civil rights abuses resulting from counterterrorism programs. Efforts by Congress to engage in meaningful oversight have met with mixed results; in the area of government surveillance, such efforts have been fruitless without the benefit of leaked information on warrantless surveillance by government insiders, since the executive branch has generally refused to make public vital aspects of its surveillance programs in ways that could give oversight efforts more muscle. At the same time, the executive branch has consistently defended the legality and efficacy of these surveillance programs.

This paper considers the nature and effect of the warrantless surveillance infrastructure constructed in the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and discusses surveillance-related powers and accountability measures in the United Kingdom and India as comparative examples. Through this analysis, this paper questions whether accountability over government abuses in this area exists in an effective form, or if governments have constructed a post-9/11 legal architecture with regard to surveillance that engenders excessive secrecy and renders accountability mechanisms largely meaningless.

Keywords: terrorism, secrecy, transparency, accountability, government surrveillance, warrantless surveillance, United Kingdom, United States, India

Suggested Citation

Setty, Sudha, Surveillance, Secrecy, and the Search for Meaningful Accountability (2014). Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol. 51, p. 69, 2015; Western New England University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-13. Available at SSRN: or

Sudha Setty (Contact Author)

Western New England University School of Law ( email )

1215 Wilbraham Road
Springfield, MA 01119
United States

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