Here Comes the Sun...or Maybe Not
As grey skies hovered outside Mudd on Monday, Oberlin students, faculty and community members moved inside to celebrate “sunshine.”
The second national Sunshine Week, running from March 12 through March 18, aims to shed light on issues of government confidentiality and its negative effects on national security.
As part of the National Sunshine Week’s events, on March 13, a national dialogue entitled “Are We Safer in the Dark?” was broadcast to Oberlin and other nationwide locations via satellite. Following the 90-minute televised program, Reid Wood, a member of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, facilitated a discussion in Mudd.
During the national dialogue, the moderator, audience members and satellite participants questioned a panel of experts on the availability of governmental information. Panelists included Thomas S. Blanton of the National Security Archive, Thomas M. Susman of the law firm Ropes & Gray and Barbara Petersen, President of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
All panelists were highly opposed to the current level of information the government withholds.
“In the ebb and flow of information privacy, we are in the middle of a drought,” said Blanton.
Blanton suggested that while some advocates of government’s increased standard of privacy may justify it in the light of a greater need for homeland security post 9/11, this cause was not consistent with the government’s ultimate actions. The government, he said, only considers whether or not terrorists can access and misuse government and neglects to consider whether or not citizens can use the same information for their own safety and protection. “Are We Safer in the Dark?” provided examples of government confidentiality becoming risky in and of itself.
Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter for the Times Picayune, a Louisiana newspaper, narrated his quest through bureaucracy in his attempt to identify atmospheric chemicals in New Orleans post-Katrina. The crucial information, including the causes for outbreaks of fire, the contents of submerged storage tanks and the source of arsenic in the sediment to be inaccessible.
According to panelists, the high amount of government classification is inefficient and costly. Excluding the CIA, which cannot expose its numbers, the cost of government classification is $7-8 billion each year.
The panelists agreed that the government’s desire for secrecy at both state and national levels often results from the wish to avoid embarrassment or accountability.
“Secrecy is the fundamental tool that bureaucracies have used throughout the ages,” said Blanton.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966, calls for an open government that is responsible for making information available. Panelists suggested that the government has become more lax in judging what documents are exempt from publicity. It has justified the continued withholding of unclassified material by labeling them sensitive. There is currently no penalty in the federal government for releasing classified information, but the government was recently on the brink of passing an Official Secrets Act, which would criminalize disclosure of classified information.
In 1992, Floridians voted on a constitutional guarantee of public records from the proceedings of all three government branches, with legislative approval needed for exemptions. The vote passed by 90 percent.
Wood opened the discussion following the national broadcast. He mentioned the Ohio House Bill 9, which, if passed, will allow the Ohio Supreme Court to determine what records become public. Additionally, the official position of Public Acces Counselor will be created specifically to assist people in obtaining records.
Wood also opened the floor to personal stories. Several community members in the room had encountered problems acquiring government information.
Panelists addressed how people should react to such secrecy in the government. They suggested that citizens need to inform the government when they are fed up with the unavailability of information.
“Take it to the people and you will see consequences,” said