Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 2, 2006

Government secrecy in the information age

While open government increasingly is recognized as an essential ingredient for democracy, trends surrounding government secrecy are a mixed bag today, said Alasdair Roberts, a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and director of its Campbell Public Affairs Institute.

“It’s difficult for me to conceive of a more timely topic than today’s presentation,” said Kevin Kearns, director of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), in introducing Roberts’s lecture, “Government Secrecy in the Information Age,” held Jan. 19 as part of the School of Information Sciences and Johnson Institute’s joint policy, ethics & accountability lecture series.

“Every day we pick up the newspaper and we’re confronted with another choice between civil liberties and expressions of national security. And in the information age, those questions become even more complex and take on dimensions that perhaps could not be envisioned, perhaps even a few short years ago,” Kearns said.

Roberts opened his lecture before a crowd of about 100 at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association with a caveat: “Let me begin by saying a few things that are going to strike you as wildly at odds with the reality of contemporary U.S. politics,” he said. As the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) approaches its 40th anniversary, Roberts noted that some 60 nations around the world have followed America’s lead in establishing laws that give citizens the right to access certain government information.

“Open government is increasingly recognized as an essential ingredient for democratic governance,” Roberts said, citing a report from the Paris-based intergovernmental association, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“And, you might think, reading the newspaper here in the United States, ‘Can this possibly be reflective of the actual tenor of the moment?’”

Outside the United States, he said, “There is a tremendous diffusion of this basic idea of the right to government information,” citing the growing numbers of nations — including Japan in 2001, Mexico in 2002 and the United Kingdom, Germany and India in 2005 — that have adopted FOIA-type laws.

That movement has been propelled in part by international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and non-governmental organizations such as Transparency International. “They are promoting the right to information, for transparency in government, for fighting corruption, protecting human rights and improving economic performance,” Roberts said.

However, “It’s a large and open question whether the right to information is going to be put into practice in a meaningful way in many of the countries that are adopting these laws,” he said, noting that many of the nations that are enacting the laws under international pressure are poor and that the rule of law in them often is weak.

Roberts said “transparency” became such a buzzword that lexicographers at Webster’s New College Dictionary named it 2003’s word of the year — a word or phrase deemed to have encapsulated the spirit of the year.

“That’s going to seem remarkable given the flow of events here in the U.S., where, over the last five years, we’ve seen intense battles over access to government information,” he said, listing well-publicized issues including the struggle over records related to Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attempts to restrict FOIA, post- 9/11 efforts to protect homeland security information, nondisclosure of information on the treatment of detainees in the U.S. and abroad and the most recent controversy over covert surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency.

So, how does one reconcile the apparent trend in which transparency appears to be growing internationally, while appearing to head in the opposite direction domestically?

“I think the answer is probably a caution against hyperbole on both counts,” Roberts said. “If we look overseas, the adoption of a law establishing a right to information is one thing. But the recognition and practice of that right, the implementation of the right to information in a meaningful way, is something else entirely.”

Citing as an example the new United Kingdom law’s exemption for certain defense and intelligence agencies, Roberts noted that the security sector tends to evade the wave of transparency that appears to be spreading.

Regarding the domestic climate, Roberts said, “I would not want to be construed as defending some of the more egregious policy decisions of the Bush administration over the past five years, but as a scholar I would have to say that it is an exaggeration to suggest that this is the most secretive presidency of the past five or six decades or to make an analogy between contemporary events and the Nixon era.

“It’s a false analogy, it’s an unhelpful analogy, to say that in some respect or another we are reprising the history of the Nixon years,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to confuse aspiration with actuality. We don’t want to confuse what the Bush administration may have wished to do from the point of view of secrecy and what it has actually succeeded in doing over the last five years.”

Roberts noted that there are important changes that have occurred in the United States since Watergate. Politicians today are subject to a suite of open government laws (such as a strengthened FOIA, Federal Advisory Committee Act, Presidential Records Act, Privacy Act and Ethics in Government Act) that were unknown to Nixon and his predecessors. In addition, he said, there has been an increase in the number of governmental and private-sector watchdogs.

“I think it’s probably safe to say that career civil servants are more sensitive to civil liberties issues than they were 40 years ago. And it’s also true that whistle-blowing, public dissent by career officials, has become a legally protected and socially sanctioned practice,” he said.

Other factors include the public appetite for tell-all books written by senior officials. “We may not think of it, but that’s another mechanism by which transparency is enhanced,” he said.

Technology also has enhanced the ability to get information to the public quickly. Roberts labeled the way Daniel Ellsberg surreptitiously removed and copied the Pentagon Papers a few pages at a time in order to leak them to the news media “a charming story about the way information got around in the pre-Internet age,” and noted that today, rather than such an effort taking months as it did for Ellsberg in 1971, thousands of pages worth of information can be contained on a single computer disk and posted on line instantaneously.

Roberts balanced those factors that have led to increased transparency with countering forces that have increased pressure on governments to maintain secrecy.

He posited that government officials would argue that increasing transparency has decreased their capacity to formulate and execute public policy in the past three decades. He predicted that although the fundamental changes that have occurred with regard to transparency cannot be reversed, leaders’ efforts to try to turn back the tide will continue.

“It’s not wholly a matter of personalities or political parties or political predispositions, and I say that because, when I look around the world and look at other governments … such as the liberal government in Canada or the Social Democratic government in Ireland and the U.K., we see similar equivocations about the principle of transparency,” he said.

“In a sense, political executives are articulating their own doctrine of resistance…. Their own internal rationale for fighting against all of these intrusions on their capacity to govern,” he said.

“It may not be done as colorfully as Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush have done it in the last few years, but I think it will persist,” he said.

While much of the recent debate over government secrecy in the United States has focused on executive prerogatives, Roberts noted that other trends and dimensions must be addressed as well.

Privatization and globalization of government functions and the transfer of policy authority to multi-national organizations work to shift power from the government — and out of the reach of open government laws.

“Just as we perfect the system of control, power is leaking out of bureaucracies,” he said. “It’s going someplace else and the controls which we developed to regulate bureaucratic power don’t regulate power in those new locales.”

Roberts cited the use of government contractors in Iraq to carry out military functions as problematic. “The transparency we apply to public actors in Iraq and elsewhere do not apply to private actors,” he said.

He views trends toward more international business — such as American firms running schools in Britain, Swedish health care companies moving into the French health care sector and a Danish security firm operating prisons in South Africa and Australia — as examples of the phenomenon of privatization and globalization of formerly public services.

“You see this broad trend toward privatization of government services. And the transparency regime, the accountability regime we built up to accommodate bureaucracies does not fit into those new entities,” he said. “It’s going to create real mental conundrums with regard to accountability and transparency.”

Additionally, groups such as the IMF, World Trade Organization and World Bank, international bodies whose decisions affect government policies, are not subject to the same transparency requirements placed on those governments, he said.

Another structural change that is of concern is the networking of security agencies with increased international interaction.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with collaboration in the name of collective security,” he said, counting NATO as an example. But, the flip side of information sharing is information security, Roberts said.

“When one agency tells another agency to share information, it exacts a price: that is a commitment about the handling of shared information…. Basically the rule is if Agency A gives a piece of information to Agency B, Agency B can’t give it to outsiders.

“The predicament is, as information sharing improves within the network, you get a certain degree of opacity for actors outside the network.”

In conclusion, Roberts said it is important to continue the struggle for openness in government.

“If I were giving an assessment of where we are, I think probably it is right to say that we are seeing the rapid diffusion of a norm of transparency but achieving a state of transparency is going to be difficult for all the reasons I described,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply