Secrecy for secrecy’s sake

Tuesday, December 23, 1997

A federal judge has sent us all an important reminder that
government officials’ obsession with secrecy can be anti-democratic,
self-defeating and, in some cases, hard on the public purse.

It is a difficult concept for elected officials to grasp, however. The
latest example: U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth has ordered the
federal government to pay $285,864 for providing the court with misleading
information about whether meetings being held in secret should have been
open to the public.

In 1993, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons
Inc. and two other groups sued the Clinton White House for withholding
that would have proved that the administration had illegally closed
meetings of the health-care reform task force. In the decision Judge
wrote, “It seems that some government officials never learn that the
cover-up can be worse than the underlying conduct.”

True. But denying the public access to government records
and meetings has serious ramifications in any society; that is
especially so in a
democratic society. In this case, for example, the fate of the
administration’s doomed health reform might have been different had
there been more public and press scrutiny of the early
stages of development. As a result, President Clinton was denied an
important element of his agenda. More important, the public was denied a
place at the table on an initiative of profound import.

Similar sad tales of official attempts to restrain and
restrict the flow of information to the public unfold every day. Earlier
this week,
the White House tried
to cut off the broadcast of an interview with
freed Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng to avoid offending China.
And it was reported that Secret Service Director Lewis C. Merletti had
warned agents that they had to keep their mouths shut “forever” about
presidents whose lives they protect.

Everyone agrees that the government should protect legitimate
secrets. The record shows, however, that officials frequently venture
far beyond
that mandate. When officials try to deny public access for merely
political or power reasons, they are guilty, not just of being slow
learners, but
of the more serious charge of dealing democracy a damaging blow.