March 7, 2013

Our View: Government secrecy bad for democracy

On both the federal and state level, lawmakers should resist the temptation to act in the dark.

The people's right to know is an essential ingredient in a democracy. If people don't know what their government is up to, they cannot make informed judgments in the voting booth.

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The Obama administration has been opaque on the use of remote-controlled drones to hunt and kill individual enemies.

The Associated Press

Unfortunately that is a position that is more popular on the campaign trail than it is among office holders.

As a candidate, President Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, but when it comes to one of his most controversial initiatives – the use of remote-controlled drones to hunt and kill individual enemies – the administration has been opaque.

The Office of Legal Council has produced memos for the White House outlining the legal justification and procedure for killing perceived enemies, including American citizens, off the battlefield. The American people need to know what that policy is and what its limits are so they can participate fully in this democracy.

Unfortunately, governments can always find reasons not to reveal what they are up to. Sometimes they are legitimate. Sometimes it's just a matter of convenience. Sometimes it is to hide wrongdoing.

We still have not seen the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the use of torture during the Bush administration. Senators have seen the report and commented on it, but the public is not in any position to evaluate whether the program could be judged as effective. Instead, people are ruled by their gut feelings and poorly documented folklore about what went on or why.

There are costs to transparency, but their are even greater costs to keeping secrets. Some people think that arrest records should protected and people who have not yet been convicted of a crime should not be identified. But it is unlikely that anyone who feels that way has ever lived in a country where secret arrests are common. The price of individual embarrassment buys an extremely valuable check on government power.

Maine has several bills before the Legislature this year that are proposed to protect individual privacy. But lawmakers should tread very carefully on any changes that obscure government actions.

Backers of a bill to hide the names of concealed-weapons permit holders have claimed that it is a protection of the right to own guns, but it is really a bill that would give government unchecked authority to decide who can carry one.

This is not how democracies are supposed to work. Lawmakers on the state or federal level should not erode these important protections.


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