Happy (?) Freedom of Information Day

multiple-classifications

Image credit: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog

Did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t until this year. Freedom of Information Day is observed (if you knew about it) on the birthdate of James Madison, who was a big advocate for openness in government. Take a look at some of the things he wrote or said on the subject of transparency and power:

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
And several more, because I can’t pick a favorite:
The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.
The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.
The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.

FOIA Changes

On Freedom of Information Day last year, in a move that may be considered ironic, the White House made a change that exempts its Office of Administration from the Freedom of Information Act, claiming “the cleanup of FOIA regulations is consistent with court rulings that hold that the office is not subject to the transparency law.

The oft-quoted axiom goes, “Knowledge is power.” So whoever possesses one possesses the other. When we contemplate our governors versus ourselves, the people, which party has more knowledge?  Who’s got the advantage, here?

Does transparency really matter?

Example: It was reported last autumn that 90 percent of those killed in recent U.S. drone strikes were not the intended targets.

Whoops? (More stories related to drones here.)

But this information wasn’t open–it was classified, and the only reason we know about it now is because of a whistleblower. This kind of information is integral to how we interpret issues and how we communicate with our leaders regarding them. What other stories are out there, buried and guarded deep, that would fundamentally rock our reactions to the issues to which they pertain?

What do you think?

I don’t mean to be overly simplistic, as there is a place for secrecy in government as well. But where is the line? How should it be drawn, and should it be drawn in sand or carved in stone? I don’t have the answers–that’s why I wrote my novel, to process and think and hopefully generate discussion among my readers.

But here’s the clincher, at least in my mind: Even if there was adequate transparency in government, how many of us would care? Or would we care to know more about information that really only amounts to pop culture trivia rather than information that affects our very freedom and future?

What good does government transparency do if the people could not care less about their leaders’ actions and agendas?

We could have a government that is transparent, opaque or translucent. But what does it matter if we, the people, don’t care?

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