Thursday, February 14, 2008

National Coalition Against Censorship: "A Presumption in Favor of Secrecy"

"A Presumption in Favor of Secrecy"
National Coalition Against Censorship

A flourishing “marketplace of ideas” is one of the great goals of the First Amendment. It is jeopardized today by an environment of government secrecy that denies the public and even lawmakers access to information necessary to make sound decisions.

The trend to keep the public in the dark was first signaled by the 2001 “Ashcroft memo,” which reversed a long-standing “presumption in favor of disclosure” of information about government activities, absent a sound legal basis for secrecy.

Before adjourning for the holidays, Congress passed the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (“OPEN”) Government Act of 2007, a suite of minor reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Sadly, a clause that would have overturned the “presumption in favor of secrecy” was removed from the bill at the last minute.

Since 2001, government secrecy has been the default position, and disclosure the exception to the rule. As documented in a 2004 report, Secrecy in the Bush Administration, issued by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), this policy has been implemented through Executive Orders, increased classification of documents, and “denial through delay.” As a result, Congress has been unable to exercise its oversight function fully, and, in some cases, public debate, judicial review, and legislative action have been foreclosed.

Without question, some information must be safeguarded in the interest of national security. Nevertheless, review by courts or legislators is essential to ensure that national security is not invoked unnecessarily, or merely to keep potentially incriminating or embarrassing conduct under wraps. Some recent revelations justify public skepticism.

Take the administration's covert surveillance program, for instance. It was first disclosed to the public in late 2005 by The New York Times (in a story that was held, unpublished, for over a year at the government's behest) that the National Security Agency was using wiretaps without court-issued warrants, bypassing the requirements of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and threatening the constitutional rights of Americans.

To Read the Entire Hyperlinked Report

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