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The more we know, the more secure we are

By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center


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It is a truism that information is power. Information also is the lifeblood of democracy. And especially during times of national crisis, information is security.

The fact that we rush to limit information that has no real bearing on national security or military operations defies reason. When the free flow of information is unnecessarily restricted, our safety is put at more risk, not less.

In past crises, we have embraced more secrecy, we have censored speech, and we have compromised and punished the press. We have sent journalists, political leaders and ordinary citizens to jail for what they said and we have interned thousands for who they were.

When we look back at these betrayals of our fundamental principles, we are embarrassed and not just a little frightened by such unthinking and unnecessary panic. Yet we seem powerless to resist the rush to repeat those mistakes when confronted by a new national terror, such as the one occurring in the wake of Sept. 11.

"The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone," U.S. District Judge Murray Gurfein wrote in 1971 in lifting the restraining order on publication of the Pentagon Papers during another national crisis. "Security also lies in the value of our free institutions."

Those free institutions are dramatically devalued, however, the moment we begin to restrict Americans' access to information, whether government officials impose those limits on us or we impose them on ourselves.

For some sense of just how important access to information can be, we need only examine events leading up to the horrors of Sept. 11. A systemic information failure left all of us tragically exposed to danger. The structures that we had put in place to protect our national security were left untended:

  • Federal agencies failed to adequately interpret information they had gathered or to pass it on.
  • Congressional oversight committees failed to ask tough questions or imagine perils beyond budget shortfalls.
  • The press failed to probe for more information or to hold officials' feet to the fire on a consistent or sustained basis.
  • And the public failed to demand or pay attention to information that might complicate their lives.

The common denominator in all of these failures wasn't so much the lack of information but the refusal to share it with others or to trust the public with it.

Even now, we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that brute reality. Instead, we wager our safety on even more ignorance. Calls from the top levels of government echo from all levels of our society: "Secrecy is security."

More ominously, comedians, ministers and academics alike have been vilified for words that failed to suit the national mood. The president's official spokesman warned Americans darkly that there were some things they should not say in such times.

Readers and viewers continue to criticize the press for reporting on chemical, nuclear, biological and other vulnerabilities.

Slowly but surely, the information lifeblood of democracy slows to a trickle. Without a full flow of independent information, public discourse is both ill-informed and anemic. The consequence is that American citizens no longer can claim full partnership in their own governance. They no longer have access to the facts that inform their discourse or their support for government policies.

In sinking into that abyss, we betray the very principles that we pretend to be protecting.

The terrors of Sept. 11 catapulted us into a different kind of world and a different kind of war. As much as we may wish it were not so, terrorism is a battle of ideas, too. We cannot fight ideas with bullets and bombs alone. We must not enter that fray disarmed by unwise limits on information.

When elected leaders seek broader authority to monitor electronic and telephone communications, they chill the speech of ordinary citizens and complicate the work of the press. When military officials want more secrecy and less scrutiny, they silence informed public discourse. When we censor ourselves in the name of being good Americans we forsake the freedoms that make us unique, as well as secure.

Information is the stuff of ideas. Ideas are the stuff of democratic ideals. And ideas and ideals are the stuff of vital public discourse.

The right of the people to know — access to information and the free flow of information — is the currency of freedom. We should not sell it short, nor should we allow it to be taken out of circulation.

Even in times of crisis. Especially in times of crisis.

A version of this commentary appears in the current issue of Masthead, the quarterly journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Recent Ombudsman columns

  • Is the press guilty of treason?
    Many regard robust exercise of First Amendment rights by either the press or the people as a dangerous problem in the fight against terrorism.08.08.02

  • The Supreme Court's 'secondary' thoughts
    While Alameda Books ruling appears to bolster efforts to regulate adult businesses, several justices express concern that evolving secondary-effects doctrine threatens First Amendment.07.30.02

  • Putting corporate security before national security
    Government is asking private citizens to take on more responsibilities, but is considering bribing private businesses to enlist in war on terrorism.07.22.02

  • Congress must champion access
    Government information must be branded as crucial to democracy, to responsible governance and to freedom.07.11.02

  • Denial of access shushes the democratic dialogue
    Some restrictions are warranted to guard against attack, but as government demands more information of Americans, it's asking Americans to demand less information from government.12.12.01


News media protest lack of access to U.S. soldiers
Military apologizes for preventing journalists inside Afghanistan from witnessing transfer of wounded American troops.  12.06.01

States seek to restrict public access in wake of terrorist attacks
'State lawmakers are closing public records at an alarming pace, often without even a shrug from those with the most to lose — ordinary citizens,' journalist says.  12.12.01

Civil rights groups sue for data about detainees
Government secrecy in terror probe violates First Amendment 'right of access to records concerning judicial proceedings,' lawsuit claims.  12.06.01

Hustler publisher takes fight over war access to court
Larry Flynt asks federal judge to force Pentagon to let magazine's reporters accompany troops on combat missions in Afghanistan.  01.07.02

Larry Flynt loses round in battle for media access to Afghan war
Federal judge denies Hustler publisher's request for preliminary injunction, saying it doesn't appear his reporters have 'been denied the access they seek.'  01.09.02

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