Monday, November 11, 2013

Secrecy, The One Party State And The Public Interest

So then, what’s wrong with secrecy in politics?

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Democrat from New York, was the chairman of a congressional commission that in the post-Cold War period inquired into the uses of governmental secrecy. Moynihan felt that a “culture of secrecy” had pervaded the U.S. government and its intelligence services for 80 years, starting with the Espionage Act of 1917.

The Commission’s findings were presented to President Bill Clinton in 1997. As part of his presentation, Mr. Moynihan secured the release of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Venona file, which documented Soviet espionage efforts in the United States during the preceding 50 years, a treasure trove of information that ought to have been released much earlier.

Moynihan’s view of unnecessary secrecy might be summed up as follows: In many cases, governmental secrecy IS the disease it purports to cure. The information in custody of the FBI for 50 years provided data necessary for Congressional overview of foreign policy. Good government depends on the public vetting of data necessary for good government, and this axiom applies to all forms of governmental secrecy.

This same view, that secrecy in government damages the constitutional fabric of the Republic, animated Connecticut’s Freedom of Information (FOI) law, which was promulgated in 1975. A broad brush law that applies to both municipal and state agencies, Connecticut’s Freedom of Information law placed windows in formerly insular smoke filled back rooms so that citizens could more easily discharge their watchdog roles as the primary guardians of liberty and good government in the state.

Most people believe that the free flow of information is necessary to prevent politicians from pilfering the government for their own private nefarious purposes, and that certainly is true. But the primary purpose of the Connecticut’s FOI law, as well as similar laws enacted in other states, is to assure good government – a government shorn of the secrecy necessary to politicians who seek secretly to act against the public’s interest.

So, the answer to the question “What’s wrong with secrecy in politics?” is that good government in a constitutional Republic such as ours cannot be maintained in the absence of transparency. In a Republic of laws not of men, the people and not its governors or judges are the final arbiters of good government. Just as in the private marketplace creativity and the free flow of information is essential to wealth creation, so in the public arena transparency is essential to good government.

Even in a state government with strong FOI regulations, many are the ways of concealing government operations. When it comes to drawing the veil over open government processes, the Malloy administration is no slouch.

Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration recently came under fire when a Hartford political columnist who had filed an FOI complaint discovered that Malloyalists were using non-official e-mails to correspond with each other concerning state business. Work on Mr. Malloy’s first two budgets was effectively concealed from Republican legislators who, for the first time since the state had elected a Democratic governor, were excluded from budget negotiations. A budget is a government’s action plan for the fiscal year. A major penological reform initiated by Mike Lawlor, Mr. Malloy’s Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, was launched through an implementer bill, a haystack of legislation originally designed to implement bills already considered and approved by the General Assembly. Mr. Lawlor’s needle, the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program, a new piece of legislation not reviewed by relevant legislative committees, was cleverly concealed in an omnibus implementer bill. Republican legislators thus far have been unable to prevail upon Mr. Lawlor to exclude from his program violent criminals convicted of manslaughter, assault in the first degree, rape and other violent crimes. A state senator who petitioned Mr. Lawlor for information that would allow the legislature to gauge the effect of Mr. Lawlor’s “get out of jail early” credits on recidivism rates has, he says, been given the runaround. A criminal report concerning a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has not yet been released; the General Assembly voted in favor of a gun restriction bill without the advantage of having seen the authoritative data included in the criminal report, the release of which has been twice delayed by Danbury State Attorney Stephen Sedensky on the grounds that the criminal investigation is still open – even though the prospect of future prosecutions is not likely.

Whatever else all this concealment and dodging represents – it is NOT transparency. The Malloy administration, particularly since Democrats now control both the General Assembly and the governor’s office, very well may be the most secretive government in living memory, and the itch to conceal from the public the public’s business certainly is not in keeping with the spirit that nearly forty years ago inspired Connecticut legislators to pass the state’s Freedom of Information law.

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