No, government is not too open

By Charles Lewis


News Politics
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Executive Editor Charles Lewis debated Stanford Professor Bruce Cain on March 15 at the University of Missouri about whether there is too much transparency — or not enough — in the federal government.The event was digitally recorded and sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs.

Prior to the debate Lewis wrote the following:

The United States has a noisy and utterly imperfect representational democracy, disorderly and dysfunctional in many ways. But as Founding Father James Madison famously observed, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Unfortunately, in terms of a national “right to know” law, it took 144 years for the American people to begin to arm themselves with palpable knowledge about their government. After many, many years of earnest organizing efforts by various public-interest organizations — in 1966 Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has been subsequently amended many times.

No one can credibly suggest that transparency and in particular, the FOIA law, are excessive. For one thing, it does not even apply to the White House or to the Congress, nor to the two major political parties, private corporations that wield immense power, dominate our national politics but were not specifically mentioned in the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution. Nor does the FOIA law apply to the large, nonprofit “think tanks” sometimes known as the “idea merchants” who help to frame our national discourse about specific public policy issues.

There are, in addition, nine other, formal FOIA exemptions that prevent or can severely delay disclosure. One of those pertains to national defense and foreign policy. Ever since the atomic age began 70 years ago and national security became paramount, public disclosure necessarily has become seriously circumscribed. Overall, billions of government records have been classified and withheld, or severely redacted during that period — all delaying and distorting “the truth” as Americans know it. For example, it took half a century and a presidential commission of nearly 50 researchers for the American people to learn the extent of the U.S. government’s human radiation experiments.

Separately, it took roughly seven years and 7,000 U.S. soldier deaths in Vietnam before the American people learned that the president of the United States had lied about the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin attack against U.S. naval forces, the ostensible rationale for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The New York Times’ and Washington Post’s June 1971 publication of the leaked, secret Department of Defense history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, known as the “Pentagon Papers,” laid bare that and other misrepresentations by President Lyndon Johnson and his administration.

We are still waiting for all of the documents from the U.S. destabilization of Chile more than 40 years ago, to the Iran-Contra scandal in which 14 federal officials were initially charged with federal crimes 30 years ago, and for documents about so many other important uses and abuses of government power. Meanwhile, today more than 4 million Americans have national security clearances, and in 2010 alone, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration classified 77 million documents, up 44 percent from the year before.

Another significant impediment to transparency involves corporate outsourcing — there are nearly four times more federal contractors, about 7.5 million, doing the business of government than actual traditional government employees. Contractors are often managing other contractors. Not only do the FOIA laws not apply to them, neither do federal government ethics laws.

Facts are and must be the coin of the realm in a democracy, for government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, requires and assumes to some extent an informed citizenry. Or as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

And in a nation with 100 million more people today than during the Watergate scandal 40 years ago but only half as many professional journalists and four times more public relations “flacks” now than professional journalists (in 1960, the ratio was 1:1), one of the very few, truth-telling moorings the public must have is access to and freedom of information.

This article was also also published in the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Muncie Star Press.

You can learn more about new ways journalists are using the Freedom of Information Act from the Nieman Reports, and can read about frustrations of journalists who have waited months and even years for federal agencies to reply to requests.