Monday, March 20, 2006

What is Government Afraid Of?

Over the last few years the information flow between the government and the public has become increasingly difficult if not impossible. When voters and taxpayers seek access to government information, they are often in for a tortuous ordeal or outright disappointment. When information from federal officials is voluntarily shared it often has the ripe odor of politics accompanying it.

Increasingly voters and taxpayers want more access to government information because more and more they distrust, with good reason, the "official "version of events and government actions. If you doubt me just look at the lies we have been told about the Iraq invasion, Katrina, 9-11 etc. Requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act have increased by 23 percent. Interestingly, the there is only a 1 in 3 chance that those rquests will produce a useful response. Court challenges for rejections have even a lower chance of being successful: 3 in 100.

Worse yet, agencies often don't respond within the legislatively required 20 days, with some requests taking years to fill. The backlog of FOIA requests has grown by 15 percent and there is every reason to believe this will only get worse post 9-11 since officials have increasingly used this as an excuse for delay and denial.

With the Bush administration government secrecy has taken on the mantra of the norm. Barriers have been erected to the flow of information to the public in the form of a new classification called "sensitive but unclassified information" (SBU) which in practice translates into withholding the information. Currently, SBU has more than 50 terms and at least as many definitions. Under this classification massive amounts of information which the public has the right to know, have been denied to legitimate requesters.

Simultaneously, federal officials have been manufacturing secrets at the record pace of more than 15 million a year. Under the Bush administration, the number of officials authorized to classify documents "top secret" has grown from 20 to 1,300. Secrets for secrets sake has become the norm rather than the exception. For the last seven years representatives of the intelligence agencies have been assigned to the National Archives to reclassify over 55,000 pages of previously released documents some of which date back to WW II. Little of this information has anything to do with national security but everything to do with trying to hide embarrassing mistakes. Excessive and reflexive secrecy doesn't make us safer; only democratically dysfunctional.

How do we fix this? Not by appointed or elected leaders; they are the problem not the solution. They have no incentive to loosen their grip on the information we get, and every incentive to continue if not increase this subversive policy. It is subversive because a successful democracy assumes the free and unfettered flow of truthful information between the electorate and the elected.

It therefore falls to us the citizens to demand that our leaders be open and truthful with us. Too often lately we have been content to be an unequal partner in this arena. We prefer to trust rather than verify, to accept less freedom in the name of national security. As long as this attitude exists, we will continue to have this unequal relationship which is both dangerous and destructive for all of us.

David Goldberg