Access to governmental information is essential if we want a government that implements our values in a fair and democratic manner. That’s why progressives have fought so hard over the years for the state and federal freedom of information laws that we now take for granted.

The freedom of information laws make government work better. Although journalists have relied on them, their most important use has been by ordinary citizens and citizen groups. These concerned citizens have uncovered every variety of government wrongdoing, corruption and inefficiency. We need access to information not because government is uniquely corrupt, but because any institution will become incompetent and corrupt without accountability.

I’ll give just two recent examples. Environmentalists used Maine’s freedom of information laws to uncover State Rep. Tom Saviello’s interference in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s investigation of International Paper, his employer. The American Civil Liberties Union used federal freedom of information laws to discover that the FBI has designated a Michigan-based peace group a “terrorist organization,” and was spying on them accordingly. In both cases, these discoveries have led to investigations by lawmakers and journalists, and will likely lead to reforms.

Freedom of information laws have broad support, but the right wing actually splits on them. The more purely anti-government crowd within the right wing, represented by former Congressman Bob Barr, supports freedom of information laws, because they do not believe government can be trusted. There is, however, a more authoritarian group in the right wing, represented by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, that has a more “nuanced” view: in the areas where the government operates, people should have little right to governmental information. Their idea is that we elect someone with “character,” and then trust them to do the right thing.

According to this view, a President need not be accountable to anyone if he has demonstrated his “character” through slavish devotion to big business, disdain for working people, willingness to start unnecessary wars, and embrace of “traditional values” like opposition to stem cell research. In other words, freedom of information laws should only be followed when Democrats hold the Presidency.

Bush is even more secretive than Reagan was. This has shown us that secrecy breeds corruption and incompetence. The Bush energy plan is full of sweetheart giveaways for the coal, oil, and nuclear companies that financed Bush’s campaigns, but does virtually nothing to increase efficiency, reduce reliance on oil, advance renewable sources, or reduce global warming. No wonder Dick Cheney won’t disclose the records of his secret meetings with energy industry executives to develop the plan. Bush has also fought to keep secret many scientific reports from government agencies. No wonder. It seems that whenever such a report sees daylight, it reveals the administration pressuring scientists to change conclusions or lying about what agency scientists are saying.

The attitude of freedom of information opponents was on prominent display during the recent port security controversy. Bush planned to give control of many major ports, including Portland’s, to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. The royal family of the UAE has some important friends, including the Bush family and Osama Bin Laden. That’s right! Bush wants to give control of our ports to people who have been sighted on multiple occasions with Osama Bin Laden! Bush has met them and trusts them. His family’s connections with the UAE are substantial, so Congress and the public have nothing to complain about. Just trust him!

This is why we need to resist the Bush administration’s assault on open government. Government can do a great deal of good, but only when the light can shine on its actions.


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