Open government to be celebrated

Published on Friday, 7 March 2014 22:52 - Written by

Does it seem a little brighter to you? No, we’re not talking about daylight saving time. We’re nearing the annual observance of “Sunshine Week,” another celebration of light and openness.

Sunshine Week emphasizes the public’s right to know, and government’s duty to do its business in the open and to keep citizens informed. During the past few decades, citizens and the media have made gains in keeping government open and information available.

In Texas, the “shield law” protecting journalists and their sources, which was enacted in 2009, continues to work well. Shield laws are vital to government openness. Reporters must be able to promise whistleblowers and other sources that their identities can be protected — otherwise, few would come forward. The Texas law is well-written and has proven itself in a number of court tests.

Still, our recent gains must be guarded.

One of the greatest threats to open government isn’t the intentions of evil people — it’s the good intentions of our own government. The public’s right to know must be balanced against security, in this age of terrorism.

That’s particularly true in the recent debate about the use of drones on American soil. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, made a bold stand on the public’s right to know the Obama administration’s policies on targeting American citizens.

“Can the president have the power to decide when the Bill of Rights applies?” Paul asked in a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor last year. “Someone in the media should ask the president. ... ‘Do you plan on killing Americans who are not in combat? ... People he might be accusing of some kind of crime, but who are not actually engaged in combat?’ It should be an easy question.”

It should be, and eventually, it was — a day later, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Paul: “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil? The answer to that is no.”

But the Obama administration has been less forthcoming on other fronts.

“Last year, the Department of Justice received the Rosemary Award by worst open government performance by a federal agency, and there has been little to celebrate since,” said Nate Jones, the Freedom of Information coordinator for the National Security Archive. “In 2012, the Department of Justice was too busy defending bad FOIA decisions in court and spent too little time ensuring that FOIA shops government wide lived up to the FOIA principles articulated by President (Barack) Obama and Attorney General Holder at the beginning of Obama’s first term in office.”

As the Washington Free Beacon points out, the Rosemary Award is “named after Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, who ‘accidentally’ erased sections of the Watergate tapes.”

It’s a dubious distinction, but not unearned. Obama claims his is the most open administration in history.

Perhaps this year, he’ll actually try to live up to that.

Because as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”