Monday, December 11, 2006

Secrecy and Our Republic

Geoffrey R. Stone is the author of a great book, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. From time to time, a piece by him is posted at Huffington Post Blog.

Here's an extended excerpt from a Huffington Post Blog entry today. It focuses on why government secrecy works against the interests of us citizens. In the course of a few paragraphs, Stone and his co-author William P. Marshall provide a civics lesson for those wondering what role is there for us ordinary citizens in the processes of government.
As citizens of a self-governing nation, we are charged with the responsibility to understand, monitor, and evaluate the policy judgments of our elected representatives. We elect a president and members of Congress to make decisions on our behalf. But they are answerable to "We the People." This means not only that "We the People" get to vote every two, four, or six years, but also that we have a right to know what our representatives are up to. We delegate to them a certain degree of authority, but they are accountable to us.

It is understandable that those in power are reluctant to share information. Why would anyone in authority want to enable others to second-guess them? Why would they want their mistakes exposed? Those in power always believe they should have carte blanch to make the decisions they think best, without interference. "Trust us" is a perfectly logical demand from the perspective of those who hold the reins of power.

But in a self-governing society, when those in authority say "trust us," we are in peril. The American constitutional system is premised on distrust of those to whom we delegate authority. Separation of powers, checks and balances, staggered terms of office, a bicameral legislature, judges with life tenure, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are all premised on distrust of those in authority who say "trust us."

Excessive government secrecy is the enemy of democracy. Secrecy cripples public debate. Citizens cannot understand, monitor, and evaluate public policies if they are kept in the dark about the actions of their elected representatives. Secrecy is the ultimate form of censorship because the People do not even know they are being censored.

Excessive secrecy is also the enemy of competence. We make better decisions when we consider more rather than fewer perspectives. We make better decisions when we openly debate the alternatives. We make better decisions when we know we have to justify our judgments and know we will be held accountable for our mistakes. Secrecy undermines all these values.

Excessive secrecy has been a consistent theme of the Bush administration. It refused to disclose the names of those it detained after September 11. It has adopted a crabbed interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, rendering millions of pages of government documents unavailable to the American people. It closed deportation proceedings from public scrutiny. It has redacted vast quantities of "sensitive" information from thousands of government websites. It secretly authorized the National Security Agency to engage in electronic surveillance of American citizens. It secretly established prisons in Eastern Europe and secretly authorized rendition and torture. It secretly authorized the indefinite detention of American citizens. It has concealed the cost of its policies in "special appropriations" bills, threatened public employees and newspapers with criminal prosecution for revealing its secrets, and deliberately masked its motives, its policies, and its failures from We the People.

Some measure of secrecy is, of course, essential to the effective functioning of government, especially in wartime. But the Bush administration's obsessive secrecy has constrained meaningful oversight by Congress, the press, and the public. It has directly and arrogantly undermined the vitality of democratic governance and it has predictably led to incompetent decisionmaking. One cannot escape the inference that the cloak of secrecy imposed by the Bush administration has less to do with the necessities of the "war on terrorism" than with its desire to insulate executive action from public scrutiny. Such an approach to governance weakens our democratic institutions and renders our nation less secure.

The responsibility for all this rests first and foremost with the president, but it rests also with Congress, the press, and the American people, who failed to meet their responsibility not to fall victim to the plea of "Trust Us." If history is a guide to the future, this will not be the last time a president attempts to hide critical information from the American people. We will best serve our government and our nation if we remember our mistakes of the present.
The most significant local issue that demonstrates the pernicious nature of secrecy in government is the ULL Horse Farm controversy, where officials at ULL fought desperately to conceal their dealings involving public dollars and property from the press and the public.

Secrecy is the enemy of our form of government. The more secrecy there is, the more likely it is that those insisting on the secrecy are working against the interests of ordinary citizens. It's true in Bush's war. It's true in the Horse Farm deals.

Only citizens, though, can insist on ripping back the curtain and letting the sunshine of public scrutiny heal the damage such secrecy inflicts on our institutions and our processes.

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