Editorial: The dangers of secrecy

A representative democracy only works when the actions of individuals and the operations of institutions are transparent

For the most part, the Bush administration and the general public fail to appreciate the extent to which government secrecy undermines democratic processes.

That much is clear from yet another revelation that the federal government has been quietly reclassifying documents once generally available and removing them from public view.

It is just the latest case in which the Bush administration has secreted away paper and electronic documents that, in theory at least, make up an essential facet of the public record about government operations.

For several years, federal agencies have periodically scrubbed their Web sites of any documents or data that, in the wrong hands, might pose a security risk. That risk is vague enough to cover an alarming range of material, government watchdogs say.

But the public has generally ignored their warnings. People understand that a tension exists between national security and civil liberties, and they are often willing to raise a ruckus when things get out of whack. Unfortunately, the concept of government accountability does not elicit the same response.

A representative democracy only works when the actions of individuals and the operations of institutions are transparent. Voters need to know what decisions government officials have made and why, and they need to understand the consequences of those decisions.

At its best, the electoral process serves as the ultimate check against inefficiencies and a balance against political passions run amok. Without that transparency, a vote is just a shot in the dark.

That is not to say that some information should not be shielded from public view. Even the most vocal advocates for open government admit that national security requires some information to be kept under wraps. But secrecy should be the exception, not the rule.

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