Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Too Much Government Secrecy

In a democracy such as ours, it is often necessary to balance national security against the public’s right to know what its government is doing. But, being government, sometimes that balance is shifted too much toward secrecy.

A new poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs for Sunshine Week, a coalition of media organizations and other groups pressing for government access, shows that more than half of all Americans believe the government is not being open enough. Seven out of 10 people are concerned about too much government secrecy.

The feeling of most Americans is that, as a democracy, the government is theirs and they want to know what’s going on. Although most acknowledge the need for some secrecy when national security is dependent upon it, most also believe the government goes too far in keeping secrets from its citizens.

It does not serve the best interest of the country when the government pulls down the window shades and denies the public access to its records. Even under the Freedom of Information Act, the government can censor all or parts of documents that are ordered released by courts.

Take, as an example, the highly secret Area 51, a government-run facility in Nevada used to test new aircraft. It has existed since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until a lawsuit in the mid-1990s that the Pentagon even acknowledged its existence.

Everybody knew it was there. Many speculated it was a laboratory facility used to study extraterrestrials that had been captured by the Air Force. Others thought it might be a test facility. But the government always denied it even existed.

That’s an extreme example, but it is not a lone one. Anytime you have bureaucrats in power, things tend to get a little hushed.

Americans are generally not too happy with that, as the poll showed. The poll also showed:

Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said there is too little access to government records; 36 percent said access is "just about right," and six percent said there is too much access.

Fifty percent said access to court records is about right, while 33 percent said there is too little and eight percent said there is too much.

When it comes to government meetings and hearings, 48 percent said there is too little access, 42 percent said access is about right, and five percent said there is too much.

The percentages are similar to those produced by the same type of survey done in 2000. That is somewhat surprising since it was assumed that in a post-9/11 era, more people would be willing to put up with increased government secrecy. Apparently, that isn’t the case.

It’s not just the federal government that is too secretive, according to the poll. Even local government can hold things back. Across the country town councils and school boards make decisions in the back rooms or across the table in a restaurant, only meeting in public to make it official.

It remains up to the pubic, and to watchdog groups such as Ipsos, to pressure the government into keeping things more open. A government that operates in secret can’t remain democratic forever.

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