Transparency is a Pro-Government Policy

Secrecy breeds mistrust among the public, an assumption that the government is doing things it shouldn't


Upon assuming the office of the presidency, Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Nobody asked him to do that, but given the unpopularity of the secrecy of the George W. Bush administration, it was a safe bet that such a promise would be received warmly. President Obama laid out his rationale in a memorandum which included the following key points (emphasis in original):

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. 

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.

Accountability, engagement and collaboration: all hallmarks of good government which bring to mind the phrase attributed to Obama's friend, Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), that government is "things we choose to do together." As a senator, Obama introduced popular bipartisan legislation aimed at improving government transparency, most notably the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, but the trappings of power led President Obama to preside over an administration of unprecedented secrecy and outright hostility to journalistic inquiry.

Some of the secrecy is merely image control, such as the lack of access once routinely granted to reporters when the president meets with foreign dignitaries. Under Obama, the press is merely given photos of such meetings from the administration's official photographer. 

Of greater import is the lack of transparency with regards to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. According to the Associated Press, despite President Obama's admonition to the agencies that answer to him that they be less stingy in sharing information, the government withheld documents under a deliberative process exception 81,752 times, a new high water mark in government secrecy. The AP added:

The government's responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of its transparency. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. It cited such exceptions a record 546,574 times last year.

A great deal of the withheld information deals with vital national security issues such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the legal rationale for killing Americans on foreign soil, and the mass surveillance of American citizens. The public has a right to know the details behind these questionable practices being executed in its name, but it at least makes sense when the government invokes "national security" as a reason for stonewalling. 

Other barriers to transparency defy explanation, such as the NSA's reply to a FOIA request from an MIT grad student seeking information on the U.S.'s role in the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, "To the extent that you are seeking intelligence information on Nelson Mandela, we have determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter." Mandela was arrested in 1962, served 27 years in prison, then won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as South Africa's president. He died last year at the age of 95. What possible justification could there be to keep this matter "properly classified"?  

That's not the only bit of ancient history being kept from the public. The CIA has fought to keep secret a definitive internal history of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Though the report was completed 30 years ago, the Obama administration still feels the public can't handle the truth of what went down in Cuba more than half a century ago. 

Attempts at reform within the government have been made, most recently with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and was expected to cruise through the House, but died after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to bring it to a vote before the legislative session ended. The bill was far from perfect and left many exemptions for the government to use at its discretion, but it did include several key improvements to the FOIA, summarized here by the Sunlight Foundation:

1. It establishes a stronger presumption of openness, prohibiting withholding of information only if "the agency foresees that disclosure would harm an interest" protected by an exemption. 

2. It adds public interest to the b(5) exemption, which is an obtuse provision of FOIA that is abused nearly as much as it's used. Indeed, some call it the "Withhold It Because You Want To" Exemption

3. It puts a 25-year time limit on the b(5) exemption (!). This is huge, for all of the reasons described in bullet two above, but let's add more flavor: According to the National Security Archive, b(5) was "used 81,752 times in 2013," meaning it was "applied to 12 percent of 2013's processed requests." Its usage is at an all-time high, and it is frequently summoned in national security contexts. This means that, for instance, the CIA couldn't block the release of internal reports on the Bay of Pigs invasion simply because the decades-old document is still marked "draft."

We will never know if the bill would have salvaged the final two years of Obama's quest to be the "most transparent administration ever," but we do know that a job exists specifically to break the news to citizens (and journalists, who are often citizens as well) that they are not entitled to peak behind the curtain at "things we all do together." That job is the FOIA Denial Officer.

Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote about a letter posted to Twitter from the Department of Education's FOIA Denial Officer and somewhat cheekily asked, "Is there a FOIA Approval Officer? Do they hate each other? Do they share an office?"

It's not as crazy a question as it might seem at first glance. The public could use an advocate, someone who works within the government but on behalf of those outside of government, to argue against the government's prediliction for secrecy. In practical application, this person would probably be paid about as well as a public defender, but at the very least a recorded debate could be had over the merits of keeping particular information classified. Surely this beats the status quo of "withhold it because you want to."

Secrecy breeds mistrust among the public, an assumption that the government is doing things it shouldn't. As President Obama has said in word but not shown in deed, "transparency promotes accountability" and encourages "collaboration" with government.

In his introduction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, "Secrecy," Richard Gid Powers wrote of the corrosive effect on faith in government caused by the U.S.' obsession with secrecy during the Cold War:

In the short term, secrecy may have made it easier for Washington to mobilize the country during the postwar crisis with Stalin. But the government's reliance on secrecy raised doubts about the wisdom and morality of policies that might well have been more solidly supported had the issues been fully aired in debate. What secrecy grants in the short run-public support for government polices-in the long run it takes away, as official secrecy gives rise to fantasies that corrode belief in the possibilities of democratic government.

If you want to convince Joe and Jane Q. Public that the "things we choose to do together" are in their interests (and that they have some say in the matter), don't operate from behind impenetrable walls. Don't fear press pool photographers might run a photo of the president with a foreign dignitary from an unflattering angle. Don't hide government-authored histories of failed military operations from 50 years ago. What you might lose in short-term vulnerability, you will gain in long-term confidence that ours is a government for the people and by the people. 

NEXT: Justin Amash Explains Keystone XL Vote, Shows Why He Should Be CLONED

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Everyone knows that our country was founded on unaccountable Executive Branch secrecy and power.

    Why do you hate ‘Murica?!

  2. At the office and to kill time between responses I am watching mandatory harassment training. Shit’s hilarious. “Don’t go terrorist on me”. “Watch out for the tiger mom!”.

    1. “Our budget has been cut, so we’re going to have to be niggardly.”

      “We need to build a Chinese Wall between these two divisions.”

      “We need complete computer security – there must not be any chinks in our armor.”

      1. boss just handed his secretary a copy of 50 shades of gray and said, “my wife love it!”

        1. Loves what? The book? Please be more specific.

      2. chinks,chinks….lacist

    2. You know companies are really serious about Harassment and a Healthy Workplace Environment when they make sure people sit at their desks and watch 30 second videos and then take a ‘self-assessment’ test.

      Only slightly more shocking is that this is the same thing they do for things like, “Information Security Practices” and “Anti-Money Laundering/Terrorism” training at Banks.

      To be fair = people where it matters get more actual oversight. But i always find the training videos to be a hoot.

      Achmed Mustapha bin Laden al Yemeni wants to open an account with you! Great! He says he has recently sold his business and has a large cash transaction to make – Do You =

      A = guarantee that you can provide swift and anonymous services for an extra fee?

      B = agree to carry his luggage through customs?

      C = ensure to check his documentation meets FINRA’s bare-minimum requirements, then process all his requests without further….


      1. Good god — I thought only government employees had such training.

        1. Bank employees do so much snooping and spying for the government as dictated by law that they’re practically deputized government agents at this point. Without the immunity and complete insulation from accountability, of course.

          Just another way the government “taxes” businesses to force them to take up some of the government’s law enforcement activities that would otherwise be too costly and manpower intensive for them to perform. Call it a hidden, regulatory tax.

  3. Transparency is good for highlighting the good things that government does, but you need opacity to conceal the good things government does which ignorant voters might misconstrue as bad things.

    Since Obama is the most intelligent President we’ve ever had, nearly everything he does surpasseth the understanding of mere mortals such as ourselves so he must conceal his machinations knowing that we are simply incapable of appreciating his genius.

    This is the essence of faith, that you do not understand but, knowing that you not only don’t understand but accept that you are incapable of understanding, trust in thy master. Why do you lack such faith in your government?

    1. All hail Obama, the Bringer of Light! PBUH

  4. “…government is “things we choose to do together.”


    “…government is “things we are forced to do together, with the understanding that waste, fraud, abuse, and unaccountability are the inevitable consequences when the government forces collective action.”

  5. “government is “things we choose to do together.”

    One of the stupidest quotes I ever seen. Government us the things some make others do.

    1. Is the things

      Stupid phone!

  6. Much of what the government does in invisible. How much more transparent can you get than invisible?

  7. “Muslim employee saved lives in attack on Paris kosher supermarket

    “When Islamist gunman stormed into supermarket, Lassana Bathily let customers into store’s basement freezer, told them to stay in while he kept lookout.”…

    1. That man clearly doesn’t understand the philosophy he professes

  8. In typical leftist fashion, Obama has redefined transparent to mean opaque. And then proceeded to run the most transparent administration ever!

  9. “..all hallmarks of good government…”

    Good government? Is that a thing?

    1. Yes. In theory. A government that enforced property rights, contracts and criminal law (as in violations of the life, liberty or property of others through force and/or fraud, you know, crimes with like victims and stuff), while protecting the borders and providing courts to resolve disputes without violence would be a good government. The moment it does anything else, then it must violate one of the things I just listed. For example once government becomes an instrument of forced charity, it ceases to enforce property rights because it gives some a claim to the property of others.

      1. You are too easy to please. I would call a government like that, “tolerable.”

        1. In order to have a functioning economy, you do need property rights and contracts to be enforced. How else can you send goods to markets without having to watch them yourself, or be sure that someone will keep their end of a bargain?

          The problem is that the very same people who would rob you or fail to uphold their end of a bargain are the people who end up running the government. Because of this, power will always be abused.

          1. Rights are about as substantial as good government.

            1. My town government is about as good as government can get. They don’t have a police force and like it that way. Without a police force, they cannot enact any ordinances, like against noise for example. Well, they can pass all the ordinances they want, but they can’t enforce them. The reason is that sheriffs and state troopers will not enforce such ordinances. They only enforce state law. (A portion of our property taxes go to the sheriff and state troopers to answer calls, but we have no force of our own) Which means that if I wanted to I could go outside and shoot up some cans, then set off a bunch of fireworks, and no one can do a damn thing about it. Good government requires restraint. It’s possible, but rare.

              1. “and no one can do a damn thing about it.”

                Your town has a population of 1?

        2. Government is like fire; it us, just barely, possible to live without it. Miserable, and very limited, but possible. Living with it is much more comfortable, but you need to watch it.

  10. There are legitimate reasons to classify certain information. The problem is, nefarious individuals (read politicians) will use it to cover up their wrongdoing. I’m having a hard time coming up with a system that allows one but precludes the other.

    1. “I’m having a hard time coming up with a system that allows one but precludes the other.”{

      At some level, you simply have to trust that those in charge are not going to screw you *every* chance they get, and I’m in favor of term limits, simply because it keeps them from figuring out all the methods of gaming the rules.
      Example: Moonbeam claims to have balanced the CA budget, and he did, sort of, by knowing the whereabouts of every sofa cushion in the state and dragging every coin out. And then simply lying, per Gruber.

    2. Obviously the solution is to ban politicians.

      More seriously, require all non-military classifications to expire after, say, a week.

    3. Heinlein had a good idea in one of his books. Basically, one chamber of congress passes laws while the other repeals them. You need two thirds in the lawmaking chamber to pass a law, and only one third in the other to repeal. This way, it better be damn important if it is to pass, and likewise if it is to not be repealed.

      Though I’m sure even that could be perverted.

  11. But lack of transparency is a huge political advantage?

    To think otherwise would be ‘stupid’?

  12. Institute a yearly hunting season on elected officials and bureaucrats above a set pay scale. Say, one week during which they may be hunted like the vermin that they are. Each one bagged must be paid for with a retroactive lisence, with the fee high enough that nobody goes hunting tyem at random; just individuals who severely annoyed the hunters.

  13. OT =

    Bodies not yet cold from Paris Terrorist Attacks = Politicians Insist on Having Parade

    “The march, coming as interior ministers, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, meet will feature Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K. and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with leaders of Spain, Italy, the European Union, Turkey and Tunisia.

    The march will start at 3 p.m. in the Place de la Republique, finishing at the Place de la Nation — less than a mile from the kosher grocery where four hostages perished..”

    I get that we’ve recently had a whole lot of Collective Nonsense-Yelling, and that Politicians have generally been left-out…

    …but it would seem that the ‘general population’ in France is actually doing a lot of this stuff themselves *already* =

    “…700,000 people demonstrated across France today, including Toulouse, Lyon, Rennes, Nice and Marseille.”

    Do Important World Leaders *really* need to have their very-own-special-precious-March For Freedom, only to return to arguing how we need to restrict everyone’s freedoms for ‘safety’?

    1. Why no analysis on the functionality of the beret?

  14. OT: Apparently, building truck stops will lead to an increase in human trafficking……..truck-stop

    1. “The Story City Council may be asked to revisit a controversial vote from last fall.

      The City Council voted 3-1 against a proposed Love’s Truck Stop, which would have been built near the town and east of Interstate 35. More than 200 residents have now signed a new petition in support of bringing the issue back to the city council.

      The November vote came after a range of concerns were raised by community members, ranging from traffic congestion to a rise in crimes like human trafficking.”

      Let me get it straight =

      People *originally* opposed a truck stop…. because ‘hysteria’, it would seem, or ‘NIMBYism’ or whatever…. and now even more people have rallied forward in the Pro-truck-stop cause = because AMERICA!! AND CINNABON-Sweet-Tax-Revenue?

      Democracy in action.

    2. Well, you can’t blame the truckers entirely. How do you expect me to get my harem of underaged sex slaves transported to me after I’ve disposed of the last one? You know how much two dozen plane tickets costs these days?

  15. My friend makes $84 /hr on the computer . She has been fired from work for 7 months but last month her payment was $13167 just working on the computer for a few hours.
    site here ????

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.