public's right to know is one of the foundations
of our freedoms and our democracy. Knowing what
our government is doing promotes accountability
and trust and lubricates the checks and balances
that make our system work.
is why Congress' oversight role, reporting by
a free press and tools like the Freedom of Information
Act are so vital.
the pendulum has swung so far away from openness
in recent years that it is silently and steadily
eroding the public's right to know. And when structural
protections like FOIA are weakened, the erosion
can be rapid, and lasting.
at the same time government agencies are quietly
building databases to learn and store more information
about each of us, it is becoming harder for Americans
to learn what government agencies are up to --
even about those new databases.
current administration's drive for more and more
secrecy has rightly become a serious concern for
Americans, sparking calls for greater openness.
has its place in government, but government is
always too easily tempted to overuse the secret
stamp. When that happens, it comes at the cost
of the public's stake in other important values
such as safety, clean air and water, and even
national security. It was intrepid reporters and
courageous soldiers -- not government officials
-- who told the American people about the abuse
of Iraqi prisoners.
it comes to congressional oversight, cooperation
from the current administration has been sparse
and grudging. Oversight letters from Congress
to the Justice Department have gone unanswered
for months or even years. Attorney General John
Ashcroft has been reluctant to appear before congressional
oversight committees, testifying less frequently
than any of his predecessors of modern times,
and this, during a period when there is much to
be accountable for.
last year's debate over the new Medicare law,
the chief actuary of the Medicare program was
told he would be fired if he answered questions
from members of Congress. Some officials have
even gone so far as to equate asking questions
about their policies to giving aid and comfort
to our enemies.
before the war on terrorism began we saw an executive
order limiting the release of presidential records,
which sharply curtailed the ability of journalists
and researchers to obtain historical documents.
The president has also granted authority to the
Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human
Services and the Environmental Protection Agency
to classify documents as secret. These are all
agencies that control health and safety information
of the utmost importance to citizens and their
communities. A third curtailment of access --
and its corollary, accountability -- is the new
and ill-defined category of sensitive but unclassified
can count on government agencies to issue press
releases when they do things right. We need the
Freedom of Information Act so we also know when
they do things wrong. After Sept. 11 we saw the
single greatest rollback of FOIA in history, tucked
into the charter for the new Department of Homeland
Security. This provision creates an opportunity
for big polluters or other offenders to hide mistakes
from public view by stamping "critical infrastructure
information" at the top of documents they submit
to the department. This approach threatens to
limit the ability of other federal agencies to
learn about and respond to threats. It also hamstrings
the public's ability to hold industries accountable.
right to know what our government is doing, right
or wrong, is a fragile gift that needs protection
by each new generation. The Constitution reflects
the founders' confidence in a government by and
of the people, a government that welcomes rather
than fears different points of view, a government
that admits mistakes and embraces reform.
free flow of information is a cornerstone of our
democracy, and each generation of Americans must
fiercely protect this right, for our own sake,
and for the generations that will follow us.
Posted: September 1, 2004