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Chokehold on Knowledge

November 08, 2002

Since it's the threat of obscurantism we're hoping to thwart, let's be blunt: The Bush administration's plan to strip the Government Printing Office's authority is a threat to democracy.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels wants to transfer control of information management from the printing office to individual Cabinet agencies. That would spell the end of the current system, in place since the Jeffersonian era, which requires executive branch agencies to send their documents and reports to neutral librarians, who then make them available to the public both online and in 1,300 public reading rooms nationwide.

Daniels would replace that system with a more secretive one in which individual agencies would manage -- and possibly sanitize -- their own electronic databases.

Currently, a federal agency such as the Pentagon can't delete an embarrassing passage from a historical document without first going through the hassle of asking each reading room to obscure the passage with a black marker.

If Daniels gets his way, all an agency will have to do is call up the document in Microsoft Word and quietly hit Control X to delete the passage for eternity.

Daniels says he's only trying to save taxpayer money. Giving Cabinet-level agencies the ability to select printing services on the basis of "quality, cost and time of delivery," he wrote, could save up to $70 million a year. That's a dubious claim, however, because the printing office already sends nearly two-thirds of its work to the private contractor with the lowest bid.

As library experts have recently pointed out, privatization might or might not save money, but it certainly would diminish the public's access to information needed to make informed decisions.

As Barbara Quint, Information Today's usually dispassionate columnist, fumed in September, Daniel's current push "threatens to gut federal document dissemination -- and fast."

In his 1644 pamphlet "Areopagitica," the English poet John Milton (reacting to how the Catholic Church had arrested and silenced Galileo simply because the astronomer's views on the universe conflicted with its doctrines) warned that citizens who didn't know what their government was doing couldn't hold it accountable.

In the late 18th century the words of an American lawyer, Patrick Henry, helped persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting the public's right to know. "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure," Henry said, "when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

In deciding whether to keep the library system that works to keep executive branch agencies honest, Congress has a choice: trust the upstarts in the Bush administration or heed the wisdom that has guided the country for more than two centuries.

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