Government openness

To the Editor:

One of the fundamental lessons of the 9/11 tragedy was that our government carried a share of blame for the failure to stop the attacks. Not because it was asleep at the switch or ignorant of the dangers that Al Qaeda posed, but because the agencies charged with our safety did not share what they knew, either up and down the chain of command or with each other. The attacks were preventable with shared information.

This insight was highlighted in the report of the 9/11 Commission – on which I served – and became a key driver of the reforms instituted by the U.S. intelligence community over the last dozen years. Within the government, there are plenty of people who now understand that sharing information and using it to inform planning and debate produces better policy – policy rooted in facts, well-vetted, and more robust.

So it’s worrisome that today it seems harder than ever to know what our government is doing, and not just when it comes to national security. Secrecy and a widespread failure to share information both within government and with the American people remain major barriers to the effective operation of representative democracy.

This unwillingness to be open often arises for the wrong reasons. In many cases, officials claim they’re trying to prevent harm to the national security, but actually want to avoid embarrassing themselves or to sidestep the checks and balances created by our Constitution.

So secretiveness infiltrates government culture. The government classifies far too many documents at too high a cost, to the point where vital information is inadequately protected because of the sheer volume of needlessly classified information.

Failing to share information makes us weaker. It enfeebles congressional oversight, which is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy and which, when aggressively carried out by fully informed legislators, can strengthen policy-making. It makes it far more difficult to maintain our system of checks and balances. It exacerbates mistrust between branches of government and between the government and the American people. And it chips away at the foundation of our system, which rests on a public that is well-informed about what government is doing and why.

Without that information, we are poorer in our ability to exercise discriminating judgment on the conduct of policy and of politicians, and we lose our advantage over authoritarian societies.

In fact, if you look at the public discussion of any number of recent controversies — Benghazi, NSA surveillance, the IRS rulings, reform of the VA, the subsidies going to solar manufacturer Solyndra — what’s clear is that as more information became available, resolving the problem became more straightforward. And failing to share information can ensnare an administration in worse problems than it was trying to avoid.

To be sure, on occasion secrecy is legitimate and necessary, but representative government – with its systems of checks and balances – cannot function properly without openness, and the presumption should always be in its favor. If officials want to keep information secret, they should bear the burden of explaining why.

Hon. Lee H. Hamilton

Bloomington, Ind.