They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security."
– Benjamin Franklin
Open and accountable government is one of the bedrock principles of our country; without access to government documents and information it is impossible for the citizenry to make informed decisions. Government secrecy is a form of suppression of information — it subverts the public’s right to know, impoverishes the collective knowledge base, and precludes Congress, the media, and the public from assessing public policy and holding officials accountable. Recently, the government’s vigorous attempts to withhold information from the public has weakened the public’s ability to inform itself and damaged the ability of researchers to engage in vital studies and analyses by restricting their access to information.
While advocacy groups have long kept the government’s feet to the fire with regard to overzealous control over dissemination of information, the events of 9/11 signaled a sea change in the government’s approach to public information. Starting with the introduction of the USA Patriot Act, several trends have developed that have sharply increased the level of government secrecy. For example, law enforcement agencies now have the authority to search homes and businesses without a warrant and to track an individual’s internet usage, library records and book purchases. The federal government has also increased the amount of information withheld as classified by extending the authority to designate information as classified to agencies that previously lacked it, by retroactively designating information as classified that had never been designated as such or had already been declassified, and by extending the period of time wherein the documents are to remain classified.
A significant development in this trend is the use of a new, nebulous category, “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU), to withhold a vast number of documents from public view. While the formal designation of information as “classified” is governed by relatively uniform rules and procedures, the new SBU category follows few procedures: there are no uniform rules about how to remove this designation, any federal employee may tag a document as SBU, and there are few checks to control potential abuse of this categorization.
Another notable setback for open and accountable government has been a sharp regression of the public’s ability to access documents through The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the primary tool whereby the public can monitor the operations of the government. Since 9/11, federal agencies and departments have been strongly encouraged to resist disclosure of documents requested via the FOIA. Not surprisingly, the number of FOIA requests has skyrocketed in the last few years.