What does it mean to have an open government? As a catch phrase, it is appealing, like apple pie. It seems especially American and downright fundamental: “a government by and for the people.” It suggests that we are in power, and that through transparency we can avoid tyranny and oppression.
In truth, it is an ideal – one for which we are still reaching. The Constitution, and the First Amendment in particular, provides the principles, but it has taken the efforts of many over two centuries to create a legal and practical framework for some transparency in government. We might prefer that our elected officials spend their time pondering how to make the government more accountable to the people (instead of fundraising), but unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Often we have gained more access through legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Act, enacted in response to some crisis of trust in our public officials.
Now is such a time.
Withholding presidential records, deleting White House emails, delaying FOIA requests, firing whistleblowers, copiously classifying documents, secretly detaining “enemy combatants,” blocking government workers from testifying before Congress…all of these are at best acts of obstruction to our right to know about the dealings of our government on our behalf – and at worst these may be acts of treason.
Some journalists like Charlie Savage and Dana Priest and bloggers like Digby and Marcy Wheeler have been relentless in their pursuit of the truth and piecing together a patchwork narrative about what we don’t know. Groups like ours, our members and individual activists have clamored for and won some change – like the most recent enactment of a “Sunshine law” – the OPEN Government Act, reforming the FOIA process for the first time in more than a decade. Some in Congress like Reps. Waxman and Conyers, as well as Sens. Leahy and Lieberman have finally begun to ask the hard questions and insist on some answers.
But we may never know the extent of the trespasses of the Bush Administration unless we continue to demand the basic information about our government operations now.
During the week ahead, we have an opportunity to object loudly and collectively to the "time in the shadows" promulgated by the Cheney-Bush Administration. This March 17-21 Public Citizen joins print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others for Sunshine Week 2008.
There are events around the country and opportunities to take action throughout the week. One such event is a live Webcast of a conversation about excessive government secrecy we are sponsoring with OpenTheGovernment.org and other partners on Wednesday, March 19. Naturally, the discussion is open to the public. Expert panelists will address the excuses for secrecy used by the Bush Administration – from “national security” to “executive privilege” to plain old stonewalling. You may participate in the dialogue by calling in or emailing your questions or comments before or during.
If we want democratic ideas like open government, transparency, accountability and change to be more than tags, then let’s not nap in the sliver of sunshine we enjoy today. Instead, let’s stand up and make the business of the government the business of the people.