March 16, 2003, marks the 37th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act and the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment. As we mark both occasions, we should stop for a second and consider the damage this secretive, monarchical administration has wrought in two short years to the flow of information to the public.
Even before the disastrous events of Sept. 11, 2001, the American public’s right to know about how its government works and what it does was under assault. Much has been said and written about the Bush Administration’s post-Sept. 11 clampdown on information, which has vastly expanded the zone of secrecy surrounding the White House, the government’s anti-terrorism efforts and even more benign government documents. What is truly tragic about the current administration’s love affair with secrecy is that it contradicts decades of governmental policy, yet the Bush Administration has done most of this out of the public’s view and without public debate.
The United States, long a paragon of openness and a champion of transparency, is rapidly regressing from a society based on the right to know to one in which information is made available on a need to know basis. This despite the immutable fact that a representative democracy simply cannot function without a vigorous public debate fueled by access to governmental information.
Even before Sept. 11, the administration made it clear that its business was just that: its business, and no one else’s. The Bush administration’s refusal to disclose information to Congress or the public about actions taken by Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy task force showed clearly the administration’s philosophy of secrecy. For the first time, the General Accounting Office – an arm of Congress – sued the executive branch, because it cannot get the basic facts about who participated in what meetings.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and another extension of government secrecy came seemingly with each passing day. Less than 24 hours after the events of Sept. 11, the federal government was hard at work scrubbing information from Web sites, stonewalling requests for paper records and denying journalists access to the most basic information.
In the months following Sept. 11, the administration demonstrated time and again that it values secrecy and considers public access to information a hindrance to efficient governance despite years of evidence to the contrary. In a breathtaking series of policy announcements, the administration narrowly interpreted the presumption of openness in a FOIA memorandum by Attorney General John Ashcroft; took the unprecedented step of “depublishing” information on government Web sites; added an exemption to the FOIA for certain documents to be requested by the newly created homeland security department; virtually rescinded through an executive order the Presidential Records Act; and resisted every attempt by members of the American public to learn the most basic facts about Muslims detained by the Department of Justice after Sept. 11.
All is not lost, however. Many members of Congress – on both sides of party politics – have questioned the rampant secrecy in Washington, and U.S. press groups, civil libertarians and other NGOs have mobilized public attention on the issue of freedom of information.
Three polls on the public’s right-to-know versus homeland security show surprising consistency. One poll, conducted in July 2002 by the First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review, found that 9/11 had very little impact on the public’s view that they had too much or too little access to government records. In fact, 48 percent thought they had too little access in 2001 and felt the same way in the summer of 2002. Only 7 percent in 2001 thought there was too much access, and that number stayed virtually the same at 8 percent in 2002.
Even when it comes to the war on terrorism, most people do not feel that they are getting too much information. About 40 percent of those polled felt they were getting too little information and 38 percent said it was just about the right amount. Only 16 percent felt there was too much information about the war on terrorism available.
Such data indicate that while Americans seem willing to defer to some degree to government in the context of anti-terrorism, government officials embrace secrecy at their peril. Where freedom of information advocates can illustrate the greater damage done to the public interest by secrecy, the grand American tradition of distrust of government power begins to shine through.
Davis is an associate professor and chairman of the the editorial department at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo. and is executive director of the Freedom of Information Center.