Information access: Finding balance

In his State of the Union address last month, President Bush spoke about the need to defend peace and reminded us in an eloquent line that "a future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all."

The converse to that statement, that "a peace won at the cost of freedom is no victory," also rings true. On this philosophical foundation are built rights we expect in our great democracy, notably free expression, open government, individual privacy and a central government of limited power. Thomas Jefferson first noted that the currency of democracy — what makes it operate — is the free flow of information.

Today we are in a war on terrorism and moving toward war with an undeniably evil regime.

As citizens, we are used to dealing with restrictions during times of war, including restrictions on free speech and access to government information. During World War I, the Supreme Court found that the first amendment does not cover invoking disaffection during wartime. During World War II, civilians who joined the national mobilization were often reminded that "loose lips sink ships," and the press cooperated with the military to avoid disclosing information that could be valuable to the enemy. And in 1971, the New York Times was temporarily (and incorrectly) restricted from publishing the "Pentagon Papers," an official retrospective of our growing involvement in Vietnam.

From those restrictions, the nation has suffered little if any lasting, significant damage. Each time, as peace came, society and government opened back up. The United States remains the world's most sought-after place to live.

Now a new set of information restrictions is upon us. Information that could reveal vulnerabilities of critical infrastructures is protected from release under the Homeland Security Act. Restrictions on the publication of scientific research that could be useful to terrorists are being strengthened.

At the same time, an asymmetry is emerging — that is, for the purpose of protecting our country, less information may belong in the public domain, but more information is needed by government to evaluate threats. Because terrorism knows no borders, surveillance must reach inward.

Perhaps this imbalance is temporary, required to meet the terrible threats that face this nation and its people. We want a government that can connect the dots, and we must empower it to do so through technology, policy and management. At the same time, we must do so in a way that does not fundamentally alter the social contract between citizen and state in America.

What is the balance between public protection and the public's right to know? If the war on terrorism will end in no clear surrender, can the old balance be restored? I will explore these issues in this space in the coming months.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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