Why government openness matters

Wednesday , August 20, 2014 - 2:02 PM



One of the fundamental lessons of the 9/11 tragedy was that our government carried a share of blame for the failure to stop the attacks. Not because it was asleep at the switch or ignorant of the dangers that Al Qaeda posed, but because the agencies charged with our safety did not share what they knew, either up and down the chain of command or with each other. The attacks were preventable with shared information.

This insight was highlighted in the report of the 9/11 Commission — on which I served — and became a key driver of the reforms instituted by the U.S. intelligence community over the last dozen years. Within the government, there are plenty of people who now understand that sharing information and using it to inform planning and debate produces better policy.

It’s worrisome that today it seems harder than ever to know what our government is doing, and not just when it comes to national security. Secrecy and a widespread failure to share information both within government and with the American people remain major barriers to the effective operation of representative democracy.

Photo Galleries

Failing to share information makes us weaker. It enfeebles congressional oversight, which is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy and which, when aggressively carried out by fully informed legislators, can strengthen policy-making. It makes it far more difficult to maintain our system of checks and balances. It exacerbates mistrust between branches of government and between the government and the American people. 

Without that information, we are poorer in our ability to exercise discriminating judgment on the conduct of policy and of politicians, and we lose our advantage over authoritarian societies: the spread of knowledge to people searching for a solution to our society’s challenges and problems. Secrecy is legitimate and necessary on occasion, but representative government — with its systems of checks and balances — cannot function properly without openness and the presumption should always be in its favor.

If officials want to keep information secret, they should bear the burden of explaining why. I hope you’ll join me in pushing for an era of openness in government.

Lee Hamilton

Bloomington, Ill.


Sign up for e-mail news updates.

Activate Your Membership


Sign Up for the Standard Examiner Newsletter
Popular in Letters

Vote no on Prop 1

Editor, I am really offended that Utah Transit Authority is back asking for more tax money to operate the transit system. In reviewing their 2014 annual report I...

Elect council members who represent the people

Editor, I have been reading the concern about some cities cancelling voting. That is very concerning but understandable. Running for any office is expensive,...