By Lee H. Hamilton
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 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: 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.
This unwillingness to be open often arises for the wrong reasons. In many cases, officials claim they’re trying to prevent harm to the national security, but actually want to avoid embarrassing themselves or to sidestep the checks and balances created by our Constitution.
So secretiveness infiltrates government culture.
To be sure, on occasion secrecy is legitimate and necessary, 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 House of Representatives for 34 years.