A photo of Paul McMasters.

It is a disturbingly routine occurrence these days: a report from the press, watchdog group, congressional committee, or inspector general disgorges yet another instance of federal government mistakes, misconduct, or worse. Each instance raises the prospect of significant damage to national security, public health and safety, personal privacy, or civil liberties. The cumulative effect of these revelations raises the concern that our government is unacceptably dysfunctional.

It is true that federal officials shoulder a massive burden in the service of all Americans, and the vast majority of their responsibilities are carried out professionally and effectively. But there are those, especially in the elected or appointed ranks, who fail their constituents miserably when they put politics or personal ambition ahead of good government or are simply not up to the leadership demands of their positions.

In such an environment, the promise — and necessity — of good government fails. The list of recent failures is long and wretched: the response to Hurricane Katrina, prosecution of the war in Iraq, and a host of social and economic imperatives that have not been adequately addressed.

Similar failures have plagued past administrations and no doubt will visit future ones. But that constant is exacerbated by the current administration’s expanded notion of executive prerogative, including excessive secrecy and the right to remap the boundaries of democratic traditions and principles without deference to other branches of government.

The list of recent failures
is long and wretched….

These conditions make even more urgent the ultimate check on government error and excess: transparency. Yet that important tool has been marginalized by a massive shift in information policy that wields secrecy as an instrument of control rather than as a component of security. This reflexive approach fails to balance the needs of democracy with the needs of security, interferes with the most efficient functioning of government, and denies Americans their rightful role as informed partners in their own governance.

Some elected officials, of course, have a visceral aversion to sharing information with the citizens who put them in office. But over the past six years especially, there has been an unrelenting campaign to put more and more information beyond the reach of policy makers, the press, and the public — even historians.

President Bush and his advisers came to office determined to reduce the flow of government information to the public. They had barely settled into their desks at the White House before the president halted the release of thousands of documents from the Reagan presidency, the first such release scheduled under the 1978 Presidential Records Act. There followed a steady stream of policies, memos, and actions restricting the flow of information within the federal government and to the public.

The Bush presidency’s hard-line stance on the sharing of information wasn’t necessarily the product of a sinister plot. Rather, it was a firm commitment to expand executive power by shrinking the information it shared. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made the increased secrecy even more palatable to the public as well as Congress.

The new information policy succeeded beyond the fondest hopes of its authors, thanks in significant measure to the administration’s determination and inventiveness — and to the fact that there were no real sentinels at the gate. Congressional oversight was feckless. The courts were deferential to the administration’s arguments. The press was intimidated. And the public was otherwise occupied.

In very little time, the initial strategy of controlling information to expand executive power evolved into a paradigm shift in government information policy. Not that the techniques and tactics were all that new, but previous administrations had employed them — if at all — in episodic and undisciplined fashion. This administration, however, perfected each and molded them into a nearly impenetrable barrier to meaningful access.

In its first six years, the Bush administration built a reputation for being the most effective, sophisticated, and disciplined in history in its ability to master the message every hour of every news cycle. This policy went far beyond the delay and denial of access to information, which was a most remarkable achievement in itself. It also included the control, manipulation, and compartmentalization of government information of just about every shape and color.

As implemented by the current administration, this information policy comes at a high price. It invites the politicization of intelligence. It embraces the rewriting of scientific information. It sanctions the use of propaganda and disinformation. It selectively leaks 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 and amasses in government databases and dossiers.

That such a policy has unfolded in increments, that it has been tremendously successful, that it has hardly been challenged other than by a small community of access advocates, that it is now firmly entrenched in government culture, does not minimize the damage. The threat to relevant political discourse and effective government function is chilling. This policy encourages governmental failures on an unimaginable scale, including war, natural disaster, and unrecognized human suffering.

Journalists are
threatened with prison
for ferreting out what
officials won’t give up.

Evidence of the injury to democratic interests abounds. Information vital to public and historical understanding (information available in other countries, even former enemies, for years) is routinely denied to Americans. Efforts to declassify information are dogged by clandestine efforts to reclassify the same material. Government officials increasingly invoke the state secrets privilege to avoid subjecting policies and actions to judicial scrutiny. Too many officials casually disregard the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. Whistle-blowers are punished for revealing government mistakes or abuse. Journalists are threatened with prison for ferreting out what officials won’t give up.

It is important to confront the possibility that Americans — leaders and citizens alike — will become far too comfortable with the ignorance that excessive secrecy creates, the darkness that ignorance creates, and the distrust and apathy that darkness creates. As the darkness descends on democracy, attempting to adapt is fraught with its own dangers. Like creatures in a cave, we lose our vision. Our senses are dulled. Our instinct for survival is redirected.

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 they often forget or forsake those pledges. Nourishing the new access 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.

Excessive secrecy in government is neither an answer nor a policy. It is a concession to fear and a threat to real freedom. It strikes too near to the heart of democratic rights and values as well as good government.

Unless and until all Americans, from the top levels of government to the grassroots level of the citizenry, agree that governmental transparency is not a frill but a core component of democracy, government officials will not be accountable. Government itself will not function in the best interest of its citizens. History will not be served. And the democratic dream we all share will not be realized. VL

Paul McMasters recently retired as the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Freedom Forum and is a former president of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government . This article is based on his remarks upon receiving the American Library Association’s James Madison Award last month at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.