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When Governments Gag the Word : United States: Where a President Restricts Flow of Public Information

July 10, 1988|Donna A. Demac | Donna A. Demac is a communications lawyer in New York City and the author of "Liberty Denied: The Current Rise of Censorship in America," published recently by the PEN American Center.

NEW YORK — On the nation's 212th birthday last week, Americans celebrated the individual liberties that have made this country unique. While we speak frequently about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, there is a another right that is essential to our society: the right to know. The Constitution makes access to information about the government and information collected by the government an essential part of the democratic vision.

In the 1980s, however, this right is in danger. The Reagan Administration has gone beyond any before it in using the power of the executive branch to restrict the flow of information. Consider:

--Some 2 million government employees, scientists and researchers who receive federal funds have been forced to sign lifetime secrecy agreements--a deliberate attempt to reduce the information available to the press and the public.

--More than 25% of all federal publications have been eliminated over the past seven years.

--The Department of Energy and other agencies have created limited-access databases consisting of unclassified material.

--A presidential order has for the first time allowed federal officials to classify materials already in the public domain.

One of the main targets of the Reagan offensive against glasnost has been the Freedom of Information Act, the nation's most important access law. The Administration succeeded in getting Congress to approve a number of major new loopholes that allow officials to withhold documents. Federal agencies have also created cumbersome new bureaucratic procedures that can delay for years the fulfillment of FOIA requests.

Now pending in Congress is an FOIA exemption that would allow the secretary of defense to prohibit "unauthorized dissemination of unclassified information" pertaining to security plans, procedures and equipment for nuclear material. This could greatly expand the net of secrecy that already exists regarding underground nuclear testing and experimentation in space.

An addition, several federal agencies have refused to grant public access to information stored in computers, claiming that electronic files are not covered by the FOIA. Another tactic is to deny that the requested information exists, when in truth the wording of the request did not exactly match the way in which the computer records were stored.

At the same time new obstacles to public knowledge have been imposed, the powers of government to monitor its citizens' activities have increased. One of Reagan's first acts was to authorize the CIA for the first time to join the FBI in conducting domestic surveillance. Intelligence agencies could justify intrusive investigations of dissidents simply by claiming there was some connection to "counterintelligence" or "terrorism."

We have recently seen some of the consequences of this policy. As one of its "counterintelligence" programs, the FBI has pressured librarians to supply the bureau with confidential information about library users. Though the targets were said to be KGB agents, the practice compromises the longstanding traditions of privacy and open access in public libraries.

In this century the federal government has become the nation's principal information provider. We depend on it for data on environmental hazards, dangerous products, employment levels and government itself. This has greatly increased the power of those in charge of getting information to the public. By cutting back or increasing the cost of government information, officials can in effect censor public actions that might have resulted from access to that information.

In the 1980s, officials working within the sprawling federal bureaucracy have succeeded in denying Americans access to a vast array of data. Acting in the name of budget cutting, deregulation and paper-work reduction, they have succeeded not in promoting efficiency, but in keeping the public less informed.

In essence, ceasing to collect information has made it easier for agencies to pursue erroneous policy: no information, no problem. A recent report by the General Accounting Office concluded that lax information policies at several agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, now mean the public is getting misleading information about hundreds of food products each year. Moreover, action to address the risks of the drug Accutane to pregnant women would likely have come earlier if the Food and Drug Administration had been more energetic in examining reports and lawsuits dating back to 1982.

The Environmental Protection Agency has moved at a snail's pace on its mandate to clean up toxic waste sites, now thought to number more than 5,000 nationwide. This is a result both of a failure of collect adequate data on the problem, which allows the agency to deny the full gravity of the situation, and a resistance to sharing what information it does possess.

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