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The public loses out as the administration expands secrecy
Detroit Free Press
August 30, 2004

The 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.

That is why Congress' oversight role, reporting by a free press and tools like the Freedom of Information Act are so vital.

But 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.

Ironically, 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.

The current administration's drive for more and more secrecy has rightly become a serious concern for Americans, sparking calls for greater openness.

Secrecy 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.

When 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.

During 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.

Even 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 information.

We 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.

Our 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.

The 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


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