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Overzealous secrecy threatens democracy

Secrecy and a free, democratic government,” Harry S. Truman once said, “don’t mix.”

An open exchange of information is vital to the kind of informed citizenry essential to healthy democracy.

That’s why watchdog groups raised a howl when Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to incarcerate people after the Sept. 11 attacks without charging them, notifying their families of their whereabouts or allowing them access to legal counsel. It is also why human rights groups protested when Ashcroft and others announced that the United States would be conducting secret military tribunals for some taken as prisoners in the war against terrorism. It is also why the media should be screaming much louder than it has over the lack of access to the battlefield and to Pentagon officials.

It is why all of us ought to be asking tough questions and demanding answers about the new latitude being granted federal agencies to engage in surveillance of U.S. residents and the increased cooperation permitted between the CIA and the FBI.

It is understandable, even essential, that certain limitations are placed on normal freedoms when a democracy is under threat from the outside. But that process should be done with great caution and reluctance, and should involve only the narrowest of areas having clearly to do with national defense.

What has occurred since Sept. 11 appears to be a rush to take advantage of a crisis to put in place measures that border on reckless disregard for the people’s right to know.

Nowhere is that attitude more evident than in the military arena. According to the recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review, reporters are being “denied access to American troops in the field to a greater degree than in any previous war involving U.S. military forces.”

The restrictions, according to the magazine, would have been “unimaginable” during Vietnam and are even “more restrictive” than the rules put in place for the 1991 Gulf War, rules that were unprecedented at the time.

While the U.S. public is receiving an abundant dose of flag-draped impressions from TV news -- interviews with just-arrived troops and with cheering troops during the Super Bowl -- little of substance has leaked out about the reality of the war, the casualties sustained by the Afghan people or the extent of damage to cities, roads and farmland.

American journalists had almost no access to troops before the war started, certainly none after it began, and it wasn’t until Nov. 25 that the Pentagon “organized a press pool” to report, under restrictions, on Marines landing in Southern Afghanistan.

Sandy Johnson, Associated Press bureau chief in Washington, expressed dismay at the fact that the press in Afghanistan had access to the Northern Alliance and to the Taliban, but not to American forces there.

Reported Columbia Journalism Review, “An unstated reason for the Pentagon’s determination to control the flow of news from the front is a concern that images and descriptions of civilian bomb casualties -- people already the victims of famine, poverty, drought, oppression and brutality -- would erode public support in the United States and elsewhere in the world.”

Of course, the images and stories cannot be kept from the public forever. Our cover story shows the possibilities when ordinary citizens, resolute on confronting the realities of terror on both sides of the divide, set to work. The result is a stunning meeting of humanity that transcends awful acts of terror and hatred.

Back home, reports surface that state officials across the country are moving to restrict public access to government documents and meetings “driven by worries that terrorists could use the information to plan attacks or escape capture,” according to the Associated Press.

Such concerns are legitimate, but they have to be balanced against the great potential for abuse. In the most secure times, public officials find it tempting to conduct business out of public view. It’s easier that way -- no public debate or conflict, no need to work at achieving consensus.

Interrupting the normal flow of information and suspending the normal safeguards against law enforcement abuse should be matters taken on with great trepidation. For behind such moves always is fear, sometimes legitimate, but often overstated. And fear, though it may serve one well in a crisis, is hardly the basis for a healthy republic.

President Bush has admonished us to be alert for signs of terrorism. We should be just as alert and vocal about dangers to democracy arising from public officials overzealous in their desire to keep things secret.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002