Issue 106, Winter 2007/2008

Destruction of CIA videotapes. Missing White House telephone records and visitor logs. Witnesses who defy Congressional subpoenas.

Secrecy, like censorship, suppresses information. Both deprive the public of the information they need to make democracy work, since participatory democracy requires an informed public. Meaningful discussion and debate can only occur if the public has access to the information necessary to form reasoned opinions. Otherwise, the public can be no more than passive observers.

Because the CIA destroyed videotapes of its interrogations of "high-value" terrorism suspects apprehended in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, it is unclear whether the facts about these interrogations will ever be fully known. How were the detainees interrogated? Were they tortured? Did the government acquire valid information, and by what means? These questions might have been answered at least in part by the tapes, but without them, the probable source of information is testimony from individuals who have a vested interest in insulating themselves and the government from criticism or liability. Sadly, the documentary record which might confirm or refute their testimony no longer exists. It has been permanently censored.

Other techniques designed to suppress information are evident in the parade of public officials who have defied subpoenas and refused to testify in Congress — about the disappearance of White House telephone logs, political interference in the appointment of U.S. Attorneys, warrantless surveillance, and more.

This kind of abuse of power and derogation of constitutional principles is not without precedent. Fortunately, at least one historical example also suggests how constitutional mandates can be reasserted. The 1798 Sedition Act criminalized the publication of false or malicious statements about the President or members of Congress. James Madison observed at the time that the Sedition Act should “produce universal alarm because it is leveled against the right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.” The public apparently concurred: the Act fueled intense popular outrage and contributed to the defeat of President John Adams in the election of 1800.

Excessive and unwarranted secrecy, no less than a ban on political criticism, precludes “the right of freely examining public characters… and of free communication….” As Madison suggested, it should “produce universal alarm.” It remains to be seen, however, whether it will also produce the political will to demand an end to secrecy and censorship and restore a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.