‘Surge in secrecy: Democracy’s incremental disaster’

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

This is a great honor, Leslie [Burger, of the American Library Association]. Thank you so much.

Since 1989, when Senator Patrick Leahy received the first James Madison Award, I have watched with pride as the American Library Association has used its immense credibility and prestige to underscore the importance of FOI by recognizing its foremost champions on the national scene.

Never did I think that someday I might join that parade of luminaries.

Obviously, I am both stunned and grateful.

Leslie, in addition to you and the wonderful Washington staff of ALA, I would like to thank one of your predecessors in particular: Nancy Kranich.

Before she became president of the library association in 2000, Nancy headed up ALA’s Coalition on Government Information for a decade. Just two of the great things she brought into being was ALA's own FOI Day observance beginning in 1988 and the James Madison Award in 1989.

Anne Heanu, who is with us today, served as a COGI staffer during those days and also worked hard on bringing the Madison awards into being.

I also want to give credit to that great FOI champion Scott Armstrong who suggested that ALA establish the Madison Award.

Nancy also was a key figure in helping me bring the National FOI Day Conference into being nine years ago. For our first seven years, ALA was our principal partner in putting on the annual conference.

Today, I am pleased that the conference has many other helpful partners: Sunshine Week and the Sunshine in Government Initiative as co-sponsors, and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government and OpenTheGovernment.org have joined ALA as cooperating partners.

It is important to note that none of these coalitions existed until just a few years ago. The emergence of these very important and effective coalitions is a part of the good news we have to celebrate today.

The silver lining to these increasingly dark clouds of government secrecy is how they have galvanized and organized the FOI- and right-to-know communities.

And we can already see their efforts paying off with new legislative and private initiatives on behalf of more open government.

Their work played a major role in the House passing four significant pieces of open-government legislation this week.

There is plenty of work still ahead, as this morning’s presentations have made clear.

The surge in secrecy
Access to government information has never been easy, of course. Government officials have a downright visceral aversion to sharing information with the citizens who put them in office to do just that.

But over the past six years, especially, there has been an unrelenting campaign to put more and more information beyond the reach of historians, the press and the public — even Congress.

As Tom Blanton at the National Security Archive and others have documented, the Bush administration came to town determined to reduce the flow of government information to the public.

You will recall that President Bush barely had time to settle in at the White House before he halted the release of thousands of documents from the Reagan presidency.

This initial chilling signal about information policy wasn’t necessarily the product of a sinister plot but rather a well-thought-out strategy to increase executive power by decreasing the flow of information.

The strategy succeeded beyond the fondest hopes of its authors, thanks in significant measure to the administration’s determination and inventiveness.

But there were other factors that helped sell the increased restrictions on public information, not the least of which were the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and two wars.

Transparency also suffered because there were no real sentinels at the gate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but —

  • Congress was obsequious,
  • The courts were deferential,
  • The press was intimidated,
  • and the public was otherwise occupied.

So the political strategy evolved into a paradigm shift in government information policy.

Not that the techniques and tactics were anything new, but previous administrations had employed them in episodic and undisciplined fashion. This administration, however, perfected each and molded them into a nearly impenetrable barrier to meaningful access.

Today, the current administration has built a reputation of being the most effective, sophisticated and disciplined in history in its ability to master the message every hour of every news cycle.

This policy goes far beyond the delay and denial of access to important information, which is a most remarkable process in itself.

It also includes the control, manipulation and compartmentalization of the information it does choose to share.

It includes the politicization of intelligence.

It includes the rewriting of scientific information.

It includes the use of propaganda and disinformation.

It includes targeted leaks of classified information for political purposes.

And it goes beyond the management of information to the punishment of those who disagree, who blow the whistle, who protest or who dissent — or who attempt oversight.

Finally, this new policy creates the democratic irony of the government dramatically decreasing the amount of information it provides to ordinary citizens while dramatically increasing the amount of information it demands about those same citizens.

While the flow of information to the public dries up into a trickle, the flow of personal information into huge government databases threatens to become an unregulated deluge.

Not surprisingly, much of this happened while most Americans were looking the other way. Each step seemed reasonable on its own and under the circumstances at the time.

The accumulated whole, however, represents a democratic disaster that unfolded in increments.

It is an unconscionable restraint on citizens’ participation in their own governance.

What do we do?
Hold on to that thought for just a moment while I confess to you that one of the joys and rewards of working with so many of you in this room today has been the fact that you have kept me sane and civilized as I wrestled with these issues.

Over the years, I have tried my best to follow the excellent example of literally dozens of the most able and committed of FOI advocates, some of whom are in this room today.

I have tried to be patient, to be reasonable, to be civil and to work by the rules laid down by those most accomplished at the political process.

But I have to tell you it has been hard. The current environment of secrecy represents a bald — and sometimes successful — attempt to control and dictate the public mind, and that really, really … uh … ticks me off.

That it has been tremendously successful, that it has hardly been challenged other than by the FOI community, that it is singular affront to democratic principles are problems to be dealt with rationally, it is true.

But it also is true that it is a damnable outrage. At least for me.

I am outraged every time I read that yet again Americans have been denied access to information vital to public and historical understanding — information available in other countries, even former enemies, for years.

I am outraged when I read that every time we take one step forward with declassification we take two steps back with reclassification — or just arbitrary withdrawal from public access.

I am outraged when the government invokes the state-secrets privilege to avoid subjecting its policies and actions to judicial scrutiny.

I am outraged when I see yet another audit by the National Security Archive that federal agencies don’t obey FOI laws.

Or that Associated Press and the Sunshine Week audits have found that state and local agencies don’t obey FOI laws, either.

Or that the Reporters Committee (for Freedom of the Press) and other press organizations have to go to court to oppose an attempt by the government to conduct the high-profile AIPAC case in secret.

Or that a member of Congress proposes an “official secrets act.”

Or that another whistleblower is punished for revealing government mistakes or abuse.

Or that a journalist is threatened with prison for ferreting out what officials won't give up.

Or that a threat of jail is not held out for officials who illegally delay or deny FOIA requests.

Finally, I am outraged every time I see a study or survey showing that the public, let alone public officials, don’t see a deep need to reverse these demonstratively undemocratic developments.

It seems Americans — as well as their leaders — have become far too comfortable with the darkness that excessive secrecy creates — and the ignorance that darkness creates — and the apathy that ignorance creates.

There are things we can and should do, of course.

  • Passing more laws is a good step forward, but federal agencies have a record of ignoring the laws already on the books.
  • Demanding more oversight is important, but as we've seen in the past few years that is not always consistent or reliable.
  • Getting candidates for public office on the record in support of openness is good, but as we’ve seen time and again, they forget or forsake those pledges.
  • Nourishing the new coalitions is important because they coordinate, target and make more effective FOI advocacy but they can’t do it alone.
  • The ultimate solution, of course, is to persuade the public — permanently — of how essential openness is to the success and vitality of the democratic experience.

Crawl out of the cave
We all know that darkness disables democracy. That why it is so important to confront the possibility that excessive secrecy in government has become such a political reality that Americans — leaders and citizens alike — have become resigned to darkness.

Attempting to adapt to that darkness is fraught with even more dangers for democracy.

Like creatures in a cave, we lose our vision. Our senses are dulled. Our instinct for survival is redirected.

And while our leaders clinging to the cave ceiling toss down loads of information they deem sufficient for us, we find ourselves neck deep in government guano … .

Adapting to a sea of government guano in a dark cave is no way to live and it certainly is no way to run a democracy.

We must convince everyone, from the top levels of government to the grass roots levels of the citizenry that without such openness —

  • Government officials will not be accountable.
  • Government itself will not be bettered.
  • History will not be served.
  • And the democratic dream for all of us will not be realized.

We must tackle that task, obviously, with intelligence, commitment, perseverance and enthusiasm.

But I think a little outrage from time to time would kick it up a notch, too, don’t you?

Thank you.