National Security

Constitution Day – 09.17.09

09.17.09

A message from ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link

Honor Constitution by Ending Unnecessary Government Secrecy

On September 17, people around the country will celebrate Constitution Day, which marks the date the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787. It is because of this foundation that all eligible Americans are able to vote, have access to fair and speedy trials, and speak out on topics ranging from health care to education and everything in between.

As a way to mark this momentous day, I believe we should call attention to something that must be present in order for everyone’s rights to be honored: transparency.

The core of any democracy is the peoples’ ability to monitor government actions and speak out for or against them. When the government blocks important information from the public’s view, they cast a shadow that prevents Americans from discussing critical issues and holding elected officials accountable. Unfortunately, over the past several years we have seen increasing numbers of government officials balk at requests for public records.

One of the most recent instances involved the release of a report on the C.I.A.’s use of torture techniques. For years, the American people were assured that the government was not using torture. When asked for proof of this, officials smiled and said, “Trust us” while failing to provide any evidence. Finally, as documents have been released, the public learned that officials purposefully hid the truth and misled us.

This is not the first time that the government has violated our trust by withholding information and twisting the truth.

The government claimed they were not accessing our library or Internet records, until a few brave librarians and Internet service providers came forward with the government’s requests.

Officials denied using warrantless wiretaps against innocent American citizens, until those who had been watched came forward.

They rejected claims that they were infiltrating and monitoring peaceful anti-war groups in the name of the “War on Terror” until documents leaked showing they had scrutinized hundreds of innocent groups.

Officials typically cite a need to protect national security when they withhold information, but these claims are often unnecessary and disingenuous. Of course, there is some information that may truly need to be classified for short periods of time, but the vast majority of documents are kept from public view for years because officials believe they may be embarrassing or controversial. Protecting the reputation of a politician or branch of government is not a valid reason to deny access to public records.

It is time that our elected officials deal a blow to the culture of secrecy that has pervaded our government over the past several years. Rather than engage the American people in thorough and honest debates about important issues like torture, due process and domestic surveillance, the federal government has embarked on a mission to hide public records and spread misinformation.

Unfortunately, even a different administration does not guarantee that government will be more open. While President Obama pledged to enhance government transparency while in office, he has repeatedly adopted the Bush administration’s position refusing to provide complete documents on government surveillance, torture and rendition programs. We cannot allow public officials to merely pay lip service to the principles of open government—we must see their commitment through their actions.

President Obama and the Department of Justice must expand their investigation into the use of torture on detainees to be as thorough and transparent as possible. The objective of this should be to inform the American people and stimulate discussion about the direction of our national security programs.

Additionally, President Obama must ensure that the American people will be kept informed and engaged about the activities of his new task force on interrogation. By informing the American people throughout the task force’s work, the White House can help build stronger public support for its actions.

We cannot allow government to once again sink into secrecy. The vitality and viability of our Constitution relies on the ability for Americans to be informed on government actions and hold officials accountable. If we are to ensure that officials are not engaged in wrongdoing behind closed doors, Americans must demand a renewed commitment to government transparency.