Commentary: Progress, Pitfalls in Addressing Government Secrecy 10 Years after 9/11

Sunday marked the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is an appropriate time to look back on what happened to government openness and access to information in the aftermath of the attacks. It seems that after 9/11, government officials stopped believing that Americans could be trusted with information – about their communities, about risks and dangers they could face, and about government actions on their behalf. Withholding information from citizens is a slippery slope for any democracy, yet over the past decade, government secrecy has expanded under the misguided belief that sacrificing citizen access to government information would somehow make us more secure.

Fears that terrorists would exploit our openness and use public information to find new targets to attack weaknesses in our security systems led us to start locking away huge amounts of information almost immediately after 9/11.

For example, access to Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for Department of Energy facilities was eliminated. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, EISs are produced specifically to allow the public to understand the possible impacts of government facilities and activities on communities in the area and to engage in debate.

In another instance, communities that faced the prospect of new pipelines running through their backyards lost access to the Pipeline Mapping System. The system allowed users to better understand the risks associated with pipelines so people could help ensure the safety of their communities.

The government scrambled to take down information from the Internet that discussed dangers or risks in even the most cursory way. Pilots were blocked pilots from getting the information they needed to avoid new no-fly zones. Online maps replaced government buildings with blurred-out images. Public officials ordered that safety notices on hazardous materials be removed as labels. Information on environmental risks such as groundwater pollution was no longer available. An alphabet soup of new "secure" information categories emerged – For Official Use Only, Sensitive Homeland Security Information, and so on – replete with confusing guidance on who could see this newly restricted information and how it could be used.

In hindsight, many of these decisions weren’t logical or sensible. For example, first responders argued that they needed to know if hazardous materials were in containers in the event of an accident. Pilots inadvertently flew into restricted areas. Communities were not allowed to see potential industrial contamination of their water supplies. The benefits derived from using public information to make our lives and our communities better was lost.

However, with distance and experience, public officials appear to have gained some perspective. Much of the information that was hastily removed or blocked has been re-posted. Even more encouraging, the commitment to information sharing and democratic participation is back on the federal government's radar – in an extremely positive way.

The Obama administration promised to be the most transparent in history and is trying to make good on this pledge. In the past two years, all federal agencies have developed plans to share more information with the American public and to increase public participation in policymaking. Federal agencies are cataloguing and examining restricted information categories in order to better share information with state and local authorities and the public. The federal government is using interactive websites and other tools to communicate with the public and open up large amounts of official information on a wide variety of issues and activities.

Nonetheless, the United States still has a long way to go to undo official reactions to 9/11. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rule that requires airline passengers to show identification remains a so-called "secret rule," the text of which has never been published in the Federal Register, posted on the TSA's website, or otherwise made publicly available (this is ironic, since all passengers know of and are required to adhere to this rule). Additionally, though the 9/11 Commission found that over-classification and the resulting difficulty in sharing information between agencies and others significantly contributed to our failure to detect and deter the 9/11 attacks, we have not significantly reduced the amount of information mistakenly classified or sped up the process of declassifying information that can be released.

The unfortunate reality is that we live in world full of dangers – terrorists, economic instability, toxic pollution, natural disasters, failing bridges, recalled consumer products, and more. The public not only has a need to know about these dangers, but a fundamental right to know as much about them as possible so that they might protect themselves and their communities. Of course, there will always be top secret and sensitive information that cannot be shared, but in a democracy, we should make nondisclosure the exception, not the rule, even during wartime. In a democracy, citizens have a presumptive right to know what their government knows and what actions it is taking on the public’s behalf. With wholesale secrecy, people won’t even know what they don’t know. This negates the basic premise of an effective, accountable democracy: an informed citizenry.

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