National Security

National security has long been recognized as a legitimate reason to restrict information from the public. The risk comes in not finding the proper balance between security and the public’s right to know. Government, already a reluctant releaser of information, may overuse national security as a means to hide additional information. The late Supreme Court Justice Byron White foresaw this exact danger when he noted, “the label of ‘national security’ may cover a multitude of sins.”

While many acknowledge that some new balance between openness and national security in the post-9/11 world may be necessary, much more is happening. Under the label of “homeland security,” information that is needed to hold government accountable or data dealing with the health and safety of the public is being withheld, and in some cases destroyed. There is no attempt to create balance between security and right to know.

Corporations that spurned disclosure are now using the events of 9/11 as a reason for clamping down on openness. And the Bush administration, which was not friendly to openness even before 9/11, has used the events to shift the public policy framework from one premised on the public’s right to know to one based on “need to know,” where each person must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the government that he or she needs to have such information.

Attentiveness to security is an understandable and prudent response to the tragic events of 9/11. However, the public’s fear, often based more on supposition than on facts, is easily exploited. Many of the post-9/11 measures taken by the government have little to do with homeland security. Some only make information harder for the public to access, while still leaving determined terrorists with alternative sources for what they need.

More often than not, information actually makes us safer. One of the sad lessons of 9/11 was the failure of law enforcement and intelligence officials to share information and thereby connect the clues that might have averted the attacks. Publicly exposing vulnerabilities forces the responsible parties to fix the problem, not just cover it up and hope the bad guys do not find out.

Since 9/11, the underlying policy climate has gone from one that grudgingly favored openness to one that actively encourages withholding of government information and goes far beyond issues of “national security and foreign policy.” Because these moves happened on so many fronts so quickly, the full impact has yet to be felt.

Recent policies with the biggest impact on national security concerns

Homeland Security Policies
For more information on Secrecy in the name of security click here.

Judicial Secrecy

For information on secrecy and courts click here.

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