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An Informed Public Is the Greatest Weapon of Democracy

October 11, 2001|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky is a professor of constitutional law and political science at USC

Although now, perhaps more than ever, it is essential that the government speak honestly to the American people, there are disturbing signs that key federal officials don't realize this. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld held a news conference in which he quoted Winston Churchill, "In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

The Pentagon later issue a clarification that Rumsfeld did not mean to imply the government would lie. Yet that seems to be exactly what Rumsfeld was saying.

It is no wonder that I am hearing students wonder if the government is telling the truth about Florida anthrax cases or the extent of the bombing in Afghanistan.

No one denies that secrecy is needed concerning the details of a pending military or law enforcement operation. Yet the need to withhold sensitive information is different from the government deceiving the American people either by lying or by manipulating the news. Although the Constitution does not expressly mention a "right to know," one is clearly implicit and long has been regarded as a feature of American democracy. Without adequate information, there cannot be a debate in Congress and among the people about the appropriate response to terrorism and other key policy choices.

Moreover, trust in government is seriously undermined if people learn that officials are lying. The deceptions of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal did lasting harm to popular trust in government. People now want to believe in their government. The Bush administration could do a great deal to restore trust if it deals honestly with the American people. Some untruths, though, already have been exposed. For example, it is now known that it was White House spin to say that there had been threats to the president's plane Sept. 11.

Outright lies are not the only form of deception. Secrecy for national security or law enforcement is necessary, but withholding information to make the administration look better or to manage public opinion is not appropriate. The Bush administration, for example, is limiting press access to the military's actions more than ever before. Throughout U.S. history until the Gulf War, the press had access to military operations, even to the battlefields. During the Gulf War, the government imposed unprecedented restrictions on reporters. Some officials were candid and said these restrictions were imposed to keep the American people from seeing the horrors of war that could turn the tide of public opinion against it. The limits have been continued and expanded since the Gulf War. In a democracy, however, the government should not use its power to manage the flow of information to control public opinion. People must be as informed as possible so that they can decide for themselves what to support or oppose.

Neither is the government justified in withholding information because it believes that people would be better off not knowing. That is the government acting like a parent, not as the agent of the people.

The reality is that the Bush administration has done an amazingly effective job of controlling the news and preventing leaks of information that it does not want disclosed. There are numerous examples of key information that has not been provided to the public. Was there another hijacking planned for Sept. 11 that was foiled because of a conflict between passengers and a flight attendant at John F. Kennedy International Airport? What are the contents of the voice flight recorder recovered in Pennsylvania, only sketchy details of which have been revealed? Who are the nearly 600 people being held and why? What is known about where the terrorists received support?

Perhaps there is a good reason for secrecy for these and many other issues where there has been silence. The problem, though, is that there has been far too little attention paid to the government's control over information and the circumstances when it is justified.

Long ago, James Madison wrote: "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives. A popular government without popular knowledge or the means of acquiring it is but a prelude to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."

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