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One principle criticism of the Bush administration was the extensive secrecy brought to government dealings. Bush and Cheney worked hard to prevent the public from learning many things the government was doing in our name. It's no wonder that Barack Obama ran on a platform which emphasized the need for open government and that he would proclaim a personal commitment to letting more light into government affairs. How has that been working out, do you think?
Some were skeptical about Obama's promises and wondered whether his commitment to open government would survive once Obama transitioned from a candidate seeking power and making promises to acquire power to a person wielding power. Not many people voluntarily give up power once they have it and that's why it's such a problem when presidents appropriate new power for their office — once established, it's difficult to remove. It's far better to keep people from getting unjust, inappropriate power than to try to wrest it from them once they've gotten a taste for using it.
Well, it looks like Barack Obama has gotten a real taste for all the power his predecessor asserted for the Office of President of the United States, and he isn't willing to give it all up. He has repeatedly asserted that he and his administration just aren't obligated to turn over information about what the government has been doing and his excuses have been getting ever worse in a short period of time. I thought they hit a low point with "we want to keep secret stuff that will embarrass us," but they managed to do worse with "we don't want to release stuff that might end up on late-night comedy shows."
Maybe it's time to review some of the reasons why an open government is important and why strengthening, not weakening, the Freedom of Information Act is so vital.
Accountability & Responsibility
Open government is important because if we don't know what our government is doing in our name, we can't hold the government generally or any government officials in particular accountable for their actions. We experienced this under Bush and Cheney because we didn't know who was involved and how when it came to the justification and creation of torture policies — so only a few people at the bottom of the chain of command were held responsible.
Those higher up have thus far avoided accountability and were allowed to continue with what they were doing. Barack Obama has been making this situation even worse by trying to shield everyone involved from any sort of accountability despite our international treaty obligations which require it. He has also persisted in keeping secret documents and evidence of all the wrongdoing, evidence which is necessary for the public to know who did what to whom and why.
When government officials commit crimes and are able to avoid accountability, they are given a license to behave irresponsibly — the only ones who know about their wrongdoing are friends and colleagues who can cover it up, just as they cover up for others. A secretive government is, in the long run, a more corrupt government.
The Burden is on Those who would Govern
In a free society, the burden of proof or argument must be placed on those who would govern, not on those who are being governed. This is an obligation on those who would create and impose new laws to justify them as necessary, not on those who object to those laws. Government secrecy turns this upside down because it allows those who would govern to avoid every justifying any actions they are taking — if we don't know what they are doing, we can't demand that they explain why those actions are necessary or just.
The Freedom of Information Act, in contrast, reinforces this principle because when a request is made for information from the government, the burden is on government officials and agencies to prove that continued secrecy is necessary for some vital national interest. The burden is not on the citizen to prove that they need it because the presumption is that all information should be available to any citizen no matter why they want it. Efforts to expand government secrecy are thus also an effort to undermine this basic principle of liberal democracy, which mans making society less free.
Another important feature of modern, free democracies is the distribution of power. More power concentrated into fewer hands leads to more authoritarianism and less freedom. More power distributed into more hands tends to produce more freedom while decreasing the chances for abuse of power and corruption. Indeed, democracy itself is a means for distributing power — specifically, distributing political sovereignty throughout the largest number of people subjected to the laws rather than just an aristocracy of some sort.
One means by which political power can be distributed more widely in government is through the independent judicial review of government actions: judges rule on whether people can be held by the police, whether prosecutors are acting according to the law, whether government actions are infringing on anyone's rights, etc. Some conservatives may whine about "activist judges," but judges who take action against improper laws or other improper government action are critical to preserving a free society.
The Freedom of Information Act continues with this tradition by providing for independent, judicial review whenever the government refuses to grant a request for information. There are legitimate reasons for why the government might need to keep information secret and this judicial review is a means to ensure that the government's arguments are indeed legitimate rather than just poor excuses to conceal behavior which is illegal, unjust, or embarrassing.
This is precisely what the Obama administration, many Republicans, and even some Democrats have been trying to get around. They apparently know that the government is in possession of material which reveals illegal and embarrassing government behavior which they don't want made widely known, but they don't have any legitimate excuses for covering it up. Some of it involves actions of the Bush administration, like the torture of prisoners, and some of it involves more recent activity like the bombing of Afghan civilians. Efforts to get around independent judicial review of such government decisions is ultimately an effort to further concentrate more and more unaccountable power into fewer and fewer hands.
Although it's true none of these actions have their origins entirely with in the Obama administration, the fact that he's simply continuing his predecessor's unethical, unjust, and even illegal behavior doesn't suddenly make it all OK. He was elected in part because of promises to bring change, and these are some of the issues where change was most strongly desired. Treating these policies as legitimate is thus a betrayal of his promises to the people as well as his oath of office.