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-Qaida 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 past 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: rooted in facts, well-vetted and more robust.
So 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.
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 policymaking.
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. And it chips away at the foundation of our system, which rests on a public that is well-informed about what government is doing and why.
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.
Full disclosure doesn’t produce good government by itself, but it makes it more likely. 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 is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.