What We Didn’t Know Has Hurt Us

By Columbia Journalism Review
January 14, 2009

Advocates for open and transparent government are quick to note that no American
presidential administration has, in practice, been enthusiastic about reducing
secrecy in the executive branch–for some obvious and sometimes quite legitimate
reasons. There are secrets that almost everyone agrees should remain secret.
But secrecy must be balanced with the citizens’ right to examine the operations
of their government–to learn, to improve, to enforce, and sometimes to
shame. That’s especially true when there are political or bureaucratic
incentives for secrecy that deserve far less respect than true matters of national
security. And despite the bipartisan resistance from those in power, the arc
of history has trended, if unevenly, toward openness. Claims of excessive secrecy
have become a tried and true political battering ram, easily wielded by the
party in opposition. Technological evolution has not only made the dissemination
of information easier and faster, but also has heightened our appetite for disclosure.
The trend isn’t confined to the political sphere. Betty Ford’s frank
discussion of her struggles with cancer and alcoholism in the 1970s marked a
new era of openness in our personal medical lives, and the invention of the
personal video camera spawned a cottage industry around moments–gaffes,
goofs, tragedies–that were once private.

Against that backdrop, there is wide agreement among journalists and openness
advocates that the administration of George W. Bush was an aberration, at least
in the modern era. Bush and his advisers came into office with a broad vision
for a more powerful, less accountable executive branch–a vision that has
long been popular in conservative legal circles. Presidential power ebbed after
Watergate, when some of the strongest laws promoting transparency were adopted
by Congress, reducing the executive branch’s ability to do its work in
secret. Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration–and
especially Dick Cheney, who assumed unprecedented power as vice president–enacted
policies and waged court battles to roll back what they saw as unjustified infringements
on presidential power, and to reduce the oversight and transparency that had
been forced upon the presidency.

Then, just eight months into Bush’s first term, September 11 gave the
administration what became its defining rationale for a draconian clampdown
on the free flow of government information to the public. Presidents traditionally
act with the freest hand in matters of national security and, following the
attacks, secrecy became both a means to an end and a goal in itself. Information
on transportation and energy infrastructure, once easily accessible on government
Web sites, was removed. The Justice Department invoked a state-secrets privilege
in an extraordinarily wide range of cases. The administration and its conservative
allies waged a rhetorical war on journalists who worked to learn and disclose
the government’s secrets. Legal justifications for the administration’s
detainee and warrantless wiretapping polices remain shrouded in secrecy today.

Read the rest here: Media Channel