Sunday, June 11, 2006

Real Democracy Requires Truthful Information About Policy, Not Fear-Mongering Secrecy

The head-in-the-sand crowd whines incessantly about the leaking of classified information to the media. They insist that the American people are better off not knowing what their government does in (and to) their name.

Robert Kaiser, who has worked for the Washington Post for decades, rebuts the unjustified fears that revelations of governmental malfeasance damage national security.

Thanks to resourceful reporters, we have learned a great deal about the war that the administration apparently never intended to reveal: that the CIA never could assure the White House that Saddam Hussein's Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction; that U.S. forces egregiously abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib; that the United States had a policy of rendering terrorism suspects to countries such as Egypt and Jordan where torture is commonplace; that the United States established secret prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorism suspects; that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping without warrants on the phone calls of countless Americans, as well as keeping track of whom Americans called from home and work.

You may have been shocked by these revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America's name, shouldn't Americans understand how it is being waged?

True, but the ignorant defenders of the Bush administration wish to remain blissfully ignorant.

Secrecy and security are not the same. On this point, Exhibit A for journalists here at The Post is the 1971 Pentagon Papers case. The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret history of the Vietnam War written inside the Pentagon and leaked to the New York Times and then The Post. Top-secret means a document is so sensitive that its revelation could cause "exceptionally grave damage to the national security." The Nixon administration was in power, and it went to court to block publication on grounds that revealing this history would endanger the nation. A court in New York enjoined the two papers from publishing the information for several days.

But the Supreme Court decided, 6 to 3, that the government had failed to make a case that overrode the constitutional bias in favor of publication. The man who argued the case was Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold. Eighteen years later, Griswold wrote a confession for the op-ed page of this newspaper: "I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication [of the Papers]. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat."

The most important reason that ill-taken policies should be brought to light is that, in a democracy, the people need to know what is going on if they are to make informed choices (as opposed to fear-driven hysteria) about who should be leading the country.

Bad information results in bad choices.

The American experiment is an experiment in self -government. The Founders established Americans' right to govern themselves. Abuse of government power was their abiding concern. The Founders saw a free press as a tool to control the abuse of power, which is why they gave the press special protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press."

The history of the First Amendment makes clear why the Founders embraced it. Consider, for example, an early draft of the journalist's favorite provision offered to the Constitutional Convention by James Madison: "The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable."

Information is the bulwark Madison had in mind. The people had to know what the government was doing in their name to be able to respond like good citizens. Accountability is only possible when citizens, including members of Congress, know what is going on.

The Bush administration relies on overclassification to protect policies that would not pass the public's smell test. This is intentional on their part.

Steven Aftergood, who works on classification issues for the Federation of American Scientists, calls the administration's approach to secrets "a cultivation of fear as a policy driver." He adds: "We are being told that nothing is more important than the external threat that confronts us, and nothing is more valuable than security in the face of that threat." Aftergood calls this "craven, and an insult to the millions of Americans who have given their lives to defend this country."

One can easily understand the administration's focus on scare-mongering. It works well upon the fearful parts of the American public. They wish to be kept "safe" from "terror." They are being exploited shamelessly.

One more point.

Ironically, the folks who prefer that the American people be kept in the dark about questionable administration policies defend truly damaging leaks (such as Valerie Plame's identity) when it serves the interests of those who are trying to undermine our democracy.


Blogger DrewL said...

Excellent article - and post - that hits the nail right on the head. And we consistently see the Bush administration's attempts to hide behind the veil of "national security" as the basis for their getting away with anything they may please. If it's something they don't want the public to know, for whatever reason, they invoke "national security" as the reason for doing so. Such an approach threatens the entire foundation of this country, and that's not hyperbole.

The self-described "patriots" who support and condone this behavior by our government are not patriots at all. On the contrary, their complicity will allow the U.S. government to attain authoritarian control not unlike that of the old Soviet Union. Patriots? How about wretches?!!

6/11/2006 5:39 PM  
Blogger Effwit said...



The wet blanket of "national security" is being thrown over the smoldering embers of inquiry into their crimes. They cannot allow the American people to know what is being done, for fear that the citizenry (with or without the help of their elected representitives) will demand that they back off.

Absolutely this threatens our democracy.

This tactic vis a vis the press has worked so well for the government that they are now planning to use the "national security" trump card to derail the looming civil cases over the NSA scandal.

6/11/2006 6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that the tactic has worked wrt the press is scary indeed... these are the very people that are not supposed to be intimidated by such bullying...

I still have hope though... I guess it falls to Jon Stewart/ Steve Colbert, etc. to try to instill some curiosity into the tragically, defiantly incurious American public...


6/11/2006 8:49 PM  
Blogger Effwit said...


It is pretty sickening to hear all the people who say that these criminal programs should remain secret so that we can be protected from "terror."

As far as I am concerned, the apologists are guilty of assisting the leaders in the theft of American democracy.

And they think that the critics of the regime are the traitors.

They are pathetic.

6/11/2006 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. The apologists, IMHO, deserve as much contempt as the architects -- if not more... Because without them the theft could not take place... Just like Hitler couldn't have pulled of Nazism all by himself.... It's like some horrible group psychosis has gripped people...

And by being so afraid of "terror" they do the very thing that feeds it and makes it grow ... and they ditch the very thing they're fighting for... Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater...


6/11/2006 9:33 PM  
Blogger Effwit said...


These fools think that they are defending "freedom" and "democracy."

That's a howler.

Also, the most fearful of "terror" are often the ones with the most unreasonable expectation of danger geographically.

Their lunatic fearfulness compels them to offer to barter away the freedom of everyone.

6/11/2006 10:06 PM  

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