Secrecy is safety, or so government increasingly seems to believe. Controversy erupted this week over a proposed change to our Freedom of Information law that would restrict the release of death records from the Newtown massacre, and rightly so.
The changes were narrowly-defined, but there was a backlash to the secretly-drafted bill in news outlets all across the state. This kind of bill, while absolutely well-intentioned, highlights a worrisome trend in government to reflexively reach for secrecy in the name of safety, security, and peace of mind.
Governments from local to national have always been reluctant to give up data they think of as sensitive, even when it isn’t. When I was in college I joined an FOI project and drove around to various small towns in New London County asking officials for things like teacher absence records and something innocuous from the police.
The result? I ran into stonewalling and frowns far more often than I was given access to the information the law said I was entitled. If I had pressed them, which I didn’t, I suspect they would have believed with perfect sincerity that I had no right to the information, which I’m sure they assumed I wanted to misuse in some way. Freedom of information wasn’t something that came naturally to these individuals.
This mindset hasn’t changed; in fact, lately it seems like it’s getting worse. The Newtown FOI bill seems harmless enough on the surface, after all it’s very specifically written to apply to just that single incident. However, the chief state’s attorney actually wanted broader restrictions on certain crime scene photos and 911 recordings in the hope of shielding grieving families. All of this is very understandable; it’s hard not to sympathize with traumatized families and Newtown’s beleaguered town clerk.
And yet, a bill restricting what is usually public information was drafted during secret negotiations, bypassing the usual far more public legislative route in the hope of actually getting it passed. Also, what’s to say that this sort of bill won’t be passed again for other incidents? How do we define what sort of victims and families are shielded? The process, the precedent, and the presumption that secrecy is the best option all are troubling.
What’s happening at the federal level is far worse, and far more frightening. The private email of James Rosen, a FOX News investigative journalist, was searched after Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a controversial search warrant naming Rosen as a possible “co-conspirator” in an investigation of leaks. They never charged him, but the search and the possibility of legal action was bad enough.
President Obama said that “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” which accurately describes what happened here, but I don’t see him or anyone else pushing for new shield laws for journalists. I have trouble believing that whatever secrets they were so zealously protecting were worth the government’s decision to turn around and bully the free press. The president should ask for Holder’s resignation for this attack on our basic values, although I doubt he will.
At this moment, American governments seem frustratingly more interested in guarding their own privacy than in safeguarding ours. Secrecy is fetishized by politicians and policymakers, and so we have everything from secretly-developed bills to police who react badly to citizens recording them to secret treaty negotiations to the largely-secret drone war against terrorists — some of whom are U.S. citizens.
You’d think that the public would get fed up with government officials that are so obsessed with keeping information to themselves, but that hasn’t happened. The big problem is that in each individual case the need for secrecy seems reasonable. Strong arguments can be made, especially the various cases involving national security, that letting those secrets go would cause untold harm.
But is this always the case? When the thoughtless-but-brave outfit Wikileaks revealed huge numbers of secret diplomatic cables a few years ago, plenty of harm was predicted. But the world has gone on largely as it did before. If there have been dire consequences . . . they’ve been dire in secret as well.
The government desperately needs a dose of sunshine. The press and the public must hold the line on freedom of information, at the very least, and demand greater transparency. American governments must end their addiction to secrecy, before it erodes our freedoms and values even further.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.