Federal agency finds Americans want access to government information

Tuesday, July 20, 1999

Most Americans strongly believe in the public's need to know about information the government is collecting or creating — particularly when citizens may be affected personally — according to a recent informal survey released by the federal Information Security Oversight Office.

Airports vulnerable to terrorism, paroled violent offenders, prisoners of war and nuclear waste sites were among topics considered “extremely important” and “important” for the public to know about, survey respondents indicated.

Distributed online and circulated among government offices, the survey asked respondents to rank 12 information categories according to the public's need to know. The rankings ranged from “0 — General Public Should Not Know” to “4 — Extremely Important for General Public to Know.”

According to ISOO Director Steve Garfinkel, the agency received about 800 responses.

Because the survey was only distributed online and through many federal offices, it wasn't a scientific one, said government-access experts, and therefore wasn't “a sound basis for any kind of policy-making.”

“What it is, though, is an indication that there is near-unanimity about the idea that the public has a right of access to government information,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to reducing government secrecy. “It's also interesting to me that the ISOO would do the survey in the first place. It suggests to me that they actually have an interest in what members of the public think. That's encouraging.”

Garfinkel said the survey was designed to gather raw, unscientific information about American attitudes toward classified and unclassified government information for a presentation he made recently before the National Classification Management Society.

Because of concerns among access experts about government declassification efforts, Garfinkel said he thought it would be worthwhile to publicize the survey.

“I think it shows that Americans are very keen on the concept on the need to know but not necessarily in the details,” Garfinkel said.

Aftergood agreed that the survey shows that people generally want access to information on topics that affect them most directly. While they are eager to learn about airports vulnerable to terrorist threats, they have little interest in secret government test sites.

“That is not at all surprising,” he said. “A lot of people fly. But very few people have a direct interest in Groom Lake or Area 51 in Nevada. That is not a subject of active interest or concern for most Americans.”

But the survey is somewhat misleading, he says, because it doesn't differentiate between the “need for access” and the “right to access.”

A 1996 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago measured public attitudes on government secrecy. That survey found that more than 75% of respondents agreed that “the government should maintain a high level of secrecy surrounding technology with military uses.”

But a majority of the same respondents said they also believed that the government protected too many documents by classifying them.

“The public has a right to know a lot of things it doesn't necessarily need to know,” Aftergood said. “That is a distinction this survey doesn't make. The truth is, I don't need to know a lot of things on this list, but the whole question of what do I have a right to know is not even broached in this survey.”