Early in his memoir Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg recalls the moment he first surreptitiously accessed top-secret government information. Then a young, rising Pentagon bureaucrat, Ellsberg had been hired away from his previous position as a research analyst at Rand, a private think tank consulting for the Defense Department’s efforts in fighting the Vietnam War. At the Pentagon he worked for an assistant secretary of state for international security affairs who regularly received classified documents that Ellsberg, with limited security clearance, could not read. The binder in which those documents were filed sat on a rolling bookstand in his boss’s Pentagon office that Ellsberg was supposed to wheel into a secure, locked closet. Ellsberg explains how, having found himself alone in the office one night, he surrendered to the documents’ temptation:
The office was dark; the light was coming from inside the closet. I was in the process of putting the rolling stand away for the night. I looked inside the thick binder and riffled through the contents. It was like opening the door on Ali Baba’s treasure. . . . At a glance I could see that what I held in my hand was precious. Reading just a few paragraphs here and there was, for me, like breathing pure oxygen. My heart was pounding.
Up to this point in his career, Ellsberg had found himself in a somewhat inner circle within the Pentagon’s extended bureaucracy. But this circle was not inner enough for a Harvard Ph.D. who had produced widely cited academic papers at a tender age and proven himself one of the best and brightest. The paper records that he was forbidden to view commanded his attention by promising entry to an even-more privileged position from which he could catch a glimpse of some greater truth. They offered him the “oxygen” an ambitious analyst needs in order to survive and prosper. His desire for secret, forbidden information pained Ellsberg, a pain that only access could relieve with its promise of deep satisfaction and pleasure.
Ellsberg’s longing for greater access met one of the criteria for entry into the inner circle: He recognized the value of receiving clearance to view protected information as both a resource and a commodity of distinction—a “treasure,” as he described it, access to which requires sacrifice. As he recently observed, “The invitation [to join a group], and the acceptance of the promise of secrecy, is the result of co-optation, often after a process of initiation, . . . after which one has been judged worthy of having one’s promise of secrecy believed.” Secrecy divides the knowledgeable from the ignorant, at once bestowing authority and providing the basis for it. To be an informational hub in what Jana Costas and Christopher Grey have described as secrecy’s “architectural properties” is to operate at an organization’s center, while to be disconnected from information’s flow is to sit on a branch, away from the action. To gain access, Ellsberg also needed to prove willing to withhold information from those on the outside. Excluding the wrong people is as important to maintaining informational elite status as is including the right ones. The German sociologist Georg Simmel called this the “aggressive defensive” process of hiding and masking information. It creates a property right that grants a “position of exception” to those who hold it.
Ellsberg’s Ali Baba moment bore special significance, then, for both the zealous bureaucrat that Ellsberg was and for the dissident leaker that he would soon become. The successive stages of information access produce tension, expectation, and release, with the ecstasy of surreptitious revelation promising a movement from dusky ignorance to the radiant high of information access. Ellsberg would acquire fame and infamy for illegally copying and releasing to congressmen and newspapers the Pentagon Papers—a treasure trove of documents akin to those he had craved when he longed for that access. He epitomized the political trajectory of his cohort of “Defense intellectuals” recruited to the Cold War military project who then joined the movement opposing the Vietnam War. His whistleblowing ultimately led to his ouster from the information-rich world he had inhabited. The Nixon administration even initiated a covert campaign to discredit him—surely as frightening a prospect as an individual could face, and as great a badge of honor as any American dissident of his generation could garner.
By violating the law that prohibited him from viewing the documents, Ellsberg crossed both the legal line and the physical boundary that placed the binder beyond his view. His heroism, to those many who see him as a hero, began when he traversed that well-guarded (but not well-guarded enough!) threshold into the sacred space where the most privileged information is secured. Only then could he imagine freeing that information from its physical constraints. Only then could he envision educating the public about the policies and actions that were being undertaken in its name. And only then could he become the famous whistleblower and secret-slayer of the left, the role he has occupied since.
The Transparency Fix
Ellsberg’s trajectory—from relative outsider to insider to banished exile—illustrates many of the basic legal, administrative, social, and cultural issues bound up in the informational ideal of a truly democratic representative government. Although he named his memoir Secrets, Ellsberg’s purpose in telling his story was to inspire readers to join his nearly career-long fight to destroy government secrecy. As he explains in the book’s preface, “telling the truth, revealing wrongly kept secrets, can have a surprisingly strong, unforeseeable power to help end a wrong and save lives.” For Ellsberg and those committed to the expansion and strict enforcement of open government laws, there is a singular truth about disclosure: Greater access to government information can remedy the wrong of excessive state secrets and can also initiate necessary and significant political change. Enough collective Ali Baba moments will surely lead the public to demand permanent and complete access to secret information.
Ellsberg tied his justification for disclosing what he viewed as precious, secret documents to his commitment to popular democracy. The public must view the state and its key documents; indeed, the term that contemporary advocates frequently use to describe the government they envision is “transparent,” a metaphor invoking a window that enables one to see inside from outside and vice versa, despite their separation. In the context of open government laws and norms, the metaphor presumes a problem and suggests its logical solution: The distant, invisible state must be revealed to the public. It provides the foundational logic for laws protecting a “right to know” by mandating “open government.” I characterize the logic—which aims to solve government secrecy—as the transparency fix. It works as follows.
The government is large, faceless, bureaucratic. It operates at a remove from the public, enforcing countless complex laws while enjoying the enormous authority to impose criminal and civil sanctions on those who disobey it. It holds the awesome power of waging war and negotiating with foreign nations. Even those who support the majority of government programs and decisions fear an unbridled, unaccountable state. To be held accountable and to perform well, government institutions and officials must be visible to the public.
But in the normal course of their bureaucratic operation, public organizations create institutional impediments that obstruct external observation. Sometimes they do so inadvertently, sometimes willfully; sometimes with good intent, but sometimes with unethical or illegal intent. Their doing so is inevitable. As Max Weber wrote, “[b]ureaucratic administration always tends to exclude the public, to hide its knowledge and action from criticism as well as it can.” Government agencies and officials enjoy and zealously protect the greater access to information, or the information asymmetry, that they enjoy over the public and over their rivals.
There is a solution, however. A transparent state removes the obstructions that keep the government hidden and the public imperfectly informed. This solution does not occur naturally because the state will not reveal itself willingly. The public needs a powerful external mechanism to force the state bureaucracy to make itself visible. Commonly, such instruments are administrative laws, enacted by legislative bodies and enforced by the judiciary, and constitutional protections against excessive secrecy developed and enforced by courts, which impose obligations upon government entities and officials to make their work more visible. These laws establish mandates for government entities to release documents and open their operations to public view. Their proponents claim that these laws can fix the secretive state.
Law is not the only fix, of course. Law’s failure to fully reveal the state has led to other solutions—some institutional and some technological. But no matter the different means that transparency proponents espouse, advocates claim that prohibiting or at least limiting secrecy can eradicate all of the obstacles that keep citizens from seeing the state.
Legal, institutional, and technological transparency fixes build on, and gain persuasive influence from, the powerful metaphor of the legitimate visible state and the illegitimate concealed one. The visibility metaphor performs an enormous amount of work for transparency advocates, constituting the problem as obvious, almost commonsensical, and its solution as essential to democracy. Advocates, judges, and legislatures frequently invoke it when they campaign for transparency, adjudicate disclosure disputes, and limit secrecy by statute. When he decried the corrupt corporate trusts of the early twentieth century, for example, Louis Brandeis famously contended that “sunlight” or “sunshine” must perforate darkened, secretive places to act as a “disinfectant.” The quotation is a frequently cited chestnut for advocates, and even the names of laws and transparency nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) draw the stark contrast between the sunlight of disclosure and secrecy’s darkness.
But it is not the only metaphoric flourish. “Democracies die behind closed doors,” a federal appellate court declared when finding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from closing immigration hearings to the public and the press without an individualized showing of justification. Nor is visibility the only metaphor. Congress declared in the title of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that information must be set “free” from its bureaucratic constraints, assuming that information that is freed from the federal government automatically becomes visible.
The transparency fix predicts that vision will lead inexorably to knowledge and to power. Information seen is information gleaned. It enables and, in some conceptions, even creates political reform through communication, cognition, and action. Legal fixes to government secrecy work by forcing the government to communicate information to its citizens. Whether by requiring state actors to make documents and data publicly accessible or to open their meetings and operations to the public, open government laws place the state in the position of sending messages to its citizenry. The public cannot act properly without this information; the state will not act properly without disgorging the information that it hoards.
Transparency thus promises to breathe life into a failing political order by allowing information to flow from the state. It does so by assuming that this communicative process necessarily has important dynamic effects on both actors in this transaction. Forced to communicate accurate and complete information about its plans and actions to the public, the state will act more responsibly to its citizens and explain its decisions and actions; able to understand and hold its representatives accountable, the public will act as an authentic, deliberative polis, in the classically democratic sense of a citizenry that capably governs itself. A truly democratic state transparently and perfectly communicates its actions to its truly democratic, engaged citizens.
Transparency thus represents a normative, achievable goal. It inspires legal, institutional, and technological reform and stands as a powerful metaphor that drives and shapes the desire for a more perfect democratic order. If secrecy is the problem, transparency is the solution. It promises to fix the state.
Transparency as a Problem
Excessive secrecy can threaten democracy and act as its antithesis. And transparency laws no doubt cure some excessive secrecy, as do institutional and technological reforms. But they don’t seem to stop the government from hoarding information. Consider the nation’s most important secrets, referred to within the military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies as “classified”—as in, documents that are classified at some level of secrecy. The ever-expanding universe of classified information remains hidden from the public, despite mandated but underfunded efforts to force agencies to declassify documents. Since 1956, blue ribbon commissions and congressional committees have regularly and uniformly decried overclassification, issuing official reports and proclamations that have had minimal effect, comparable to the impact of a tsk-tsk sermon delivered by a beat cop to a publicly inebriated alcoholic. This is because few of the normal legal and bureaucratic checks and balances exist that would otherwise obstruct or discourage the system’s expansion.
Classification is easier than declassification. Declassifying usually requires the review of multiple officials and agencies, including risk-averse classification authorities who would prefer to knowingly overclassify than to mistakenly underclassify. Also, the classification process begins in the executive branch, and Congress has shown little interest in taking on the responsibility of legislating the practice or even of challenging the president’s prerogative to oversee the process. And courts generally defer to presumably expert judgments by agency personnel about the dangers posed by information disclosure. Although classification and declassification policies change incrementally from president to president and in response to national security crises (or their absence), the general trend holds steady, and the pool of classified documents simply remains unfathomably large.
Consider too the expectations that met the Obama administration upon taking office after a campaign that pledged to remove the veil of secrecy of the George W. Bush administration. President Obama attempted to make good upon his campaign promise in some of his first official acts after his inauguration, and by the beginning of his second term, in February 2013, he declared that his was “the most transparent administration in history.” Let’s assume that candidate Obama meant to fulfill his campaign promises and that President Obama firmly believed his 2013 claim, which he made despite widespread complaints about his administration’s secrecy not only from his political opponents but also from transparency advocates.
By late spring 2013, Obama and his administration fought scandals of various degrees of merit and import in which Republican legislators and activists denounced his administration’s actions and, worse, its efforts to cover them up: the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance; the Internal Revenue Service’s secret targeting of Tea Party groups’ tax exempt status; the Department of Justice’s secret subpoena of phone records of reporters in order to chase down the sources of national security leaks; and the response by the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency to the fatal attack of the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Without agreeing about the substance of these scandals (or even their status as scandals), transparency advocates and Republicans compared what they characterized as the administration’s coverups to those of the Nixon administration, perhaps the most scandalously secretive presidency of all. In 2014, more lawsuits were filed against the Obama administration under the FOIA than in any year since 2001, suggesting that the administration was willing to be hauled into court rather than disclose information to those who request it. By late spring 2014, a majority of White House press correspondents responding to a poll from the web publication Politico did not view the administration’s transparency policies any more favorably than they did those of his predecessor. Scholars and transparency advocates generally agreed with this assessment.
It is not clear when the government “jumped the shark” with its secrecy, as the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation had complained as early as 2011 about the government’s disclosure and classification performance, but some meaningful marker of containment has clearly been left behind. To transparency advocates, secrecy’s recurring triumph—even in the administration of a liberal, former constitutional law professor—represents a failure of leadership and institutional will. Perhaps the right leader—overseeing the correctly sized, ethical bureaucracy—could avoid the lure of information control.
Perhaps, too, we are merely awaiting the proper implementation of the transparency fix. Indeed, transparency advocates have initiated important, incremental legal reforms that have allowed the state to be seen and that have informed the public (or at least parts of it) on many topics. But they have not been able to make the state transparent. Advocates concede as much, as they regularly season their confident prophecy that the promised land of visibility will soon surely come with a strong measure of outrage at the state’s continued opacity. They begin with the assumption of a solvable problem but then inevitably face the limits of their own ability to impose their solution on a recalcitrant, unwieldy state.
Part of the problem is structural, at least in the United States. The Supreme Court has held that there is no individual right to government information in the U.S. Constitution. As recently as 2013, the Court declared that information access laws are “of recent vintage” and are not “basic to the maintenance or well-being of the Union,” and that the right to information that access laws establish is neither part of, nor equal to, the foundational rights of speech and assembly. Elected officials therefore establish and define the political rights of public access to information and the state’s obligation to disclose government information. Their commitment to such rights and obligations always seems to waver and is limited by their own self-interest. The FOIA, for example, extends only to the executive branch. Notably, Congress has not extended the law’s obligations to itself, nor to the judiciary.
The problem also appears to be permanent. Notwithstanding occasions of openness, government seems eternally resistant to disclosure. This was most obvious in the Bush administration’s efforts to control the flow of information from the executive branch post–September 11, out of concern that government information disclosure might breach homeland security. But as the Obama administration’s transparency controversies illustrate, government opacity is entrenched. The notably secretive Bush administration occasionally expressed its commitment to openness, as do most courts when they have reviewed challenges to government agencies’ refusals to disclose information. But when executive officers and agencies routinely refuse to release information about the government’s inner workings on the grounds that some exception or other privilege overrides a statutory disclosure requirement, and when agencies at all levels seem resistant to comply with open government mandates, transparency becomes more of a distant, deferred ideal than an existing practice.
The endemic frustration with secretive governments no doubt emanates from some combination of official malfeasance and nonfeasance, and from the constitutional distribution of power and sedimented institutional structures. But the unresolvable political, legal, and social conflicts embedded within the concept of transparency itself cause this frustration. Transparency is only one means to achieve the end of a more responsive state that more effectively achieves democratically agreed-upon ends. The fear of a secret, remote government—like the hope for a visible, accessible one—heightens transparency’s salience at the cost of obscuring the limits of its enforceability as an administrative norm. Overinvestment in transparency as a metaphor leads open government advocates to lament ineffective administrative laws and other measures that inevitably fail to make the state permanently and entirely visible. Transparency’s symbolic pull, its ability to grab the public’s imagination with the image of Ali Baba’s treasure trove of secrets, leads us to fetishize means without fully considering the ends they are intended to reach and without attempting to grapple with the question of why these means always prove unsatisfactory. The many ongoing campaigns to open the state have not led us to the promised land of good, legitimate governance.
The Transparency Fix Meets the Secrecy Privilege
At the same time that transparency never seems to fix the state, the state itself claims that it requires and enjoys the right to keep secrets. As Gilbert Schoenfeld argued in Necessary Secrets, secrecy represents “one of the most critical tools of national defense” in the state’s battle to protect itself from terrorist attacks and constitutes “a basic precept of warfare.” Secrecy advocates like Schoenfeld push in the opposite direction on the basis of the state’s unquestionable need to control information so that it can advance diplomacy and protect national security, law enforcement, personal privacy, and other widely cherished concerns. Like transparency, the state’s interest in protecting its information also enjoys enormous symbolic salience. Officials continually and successfully invoke this interest before legislators, courts, and the general public. Such pressure sometimes negates transparency’s influence, forcing it to give way to state claims for the need to protect its information for the public safety and good. The secrecy privilege offers a mirror image to the transparency ideal, constituting a conceptual ideal that helps explain the systematic transparency problem we face.
To understand the relationship between the transparency fix and the secrecy privilege, consider two alternative ways of understanding transparency—a strong form, which seeks a means to fix the secretive state, and a weaker one, which concedes the existence of a secrecy privilege. In its strong form, the transparency ideal represents the precise basis and measure of a state that purports to be democratic. Government doors should never be closed, and all government information should be available to the public as it is created or collected. The state should be as perfectly visible as possible.
From the moment of its emergence in the public eye, WikiLeaks, the website publisher that distributes purloined documents and protects the leaker’s anonymity, claimed it would serve as the preeminent proponent and enforcer of this ideal. It would make available the universe of secret documents held by those public and private institutions that govern our lives. WikiLeaks’ innovative threat to the state comes from the complete nature of its disclosures, the government’s lack of control over their release and distribution, the site’s seeming statelessness and resistance to the interests of the nation whose secrets it is revealing, and the theoretical possibility that it could distribute a nearly limitless amount of documents. At the apex of its apparent power, WikiLeaks claimed the ability to cure the state of its ills by making it fully visible against its wishes.
WikiLeaks’ position makes it an outlier. More advocates of transparency subscribe to a weaker ideal that views the unexpurgated, perfectly visible state as excessively open in a way that renders it vulnerable to its enemies and incapable of operating deliberatively and effectively. They are willing to concede the need, or at least the advisability, of asking complex questions: When is transparency most important as an administrative norm? To what extent should an agency be held to that norm? When must secrecy bend to transparency, and when must transparency give way to secrecy? These challenging but necessary questions typically lead many transparency proponents and open government laws to concede a set of exceptions to disclosure that are just as broad and opaque as the transparency norms themselves.
This requires the transparency fix to stare down its powerful mirror image—the secrecy privilege. Administrative laws generally balance transparency’s beneficial effects and normative value against the state’s need to withhold a limited amount of information, the disclosure of which would cause identifiable harm. This commitment to a balance reduces the transparency fix to a line-drawing exercise between information that can be safely disclosed and that which must be kept secret. Some government documents and meetings must remain privileged, but the precise scope of that privilege in hard cases remains hazy and contested.
Once an effort to fix transparency relies upon drawing a line between defensible and indefensible secrecy, transparency becomes one among many values vying for legal and administrative predominance. It is subject to all of the different means by which policymakers and courts resolve conflicts among competing visions of the good—situational distinctions among the kinds of actions in which government agencies engage; rank-ordering based on political commitments to democratic norms; cost–benefit analysis; the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and the like. Transparency emerges from this process as something less than an essential fix and more as one among many tools available to regulate the administrative state. Thus, the state might prefer secretive deliberations (or privacy), or it might prefer immediate, efficient decision making (such as national security or law enforcement concerns) over transparency. Once open government laws begin to recognize exceptions to disclosure, the exceptions in turn threaten to unravel the ideal of transparency by vesting broad discretion about whether and how much to disclose in the very state actors that have claimed the exceptions in the first place.
Divining when transparency must give way because disclosure would harm the public good is a complex task, one that leads to frustrating debates and ritualistic political and legal struggle over abstract democratic ideals and deeply held anxieties. “Transparency” thus becomes a term of concealment and opacity that promises more than it can deliver. Used in its strongest and most abstract form in the context of open government, it presents an impossibly simple ideal of the state as a holder and potential conduit of information that can be made available in real time, whether or not officials agree. Used in its weaker form, as it more typically is, transparency represents merely one value among others but nevertheless requires privilege and priority that it often does not receive. And however it is viewed, transparency appears to fail ultimately to further its stated end of a better, more responsive, and truly democratic government.
Thus transparency itself constitutes a problem. Notwithstanding the enactment of open government laws and presidential commitments to make the executive branch transparent, the state remains distant, and members of the public and opposition politicians regularly complain about an excessively powerful, secretive government. Too often, the government fails to meet its citizens’ expectations that it act in a manner that is visible, accessible, and above all communicative. And too often, the public appears incapable of acting like the democratic public that transparency assumes must exist. We long for a state that we can see and know, but we never seem to get it. We long for a public that can process and act on information fully and accurately, but it rarely seems to emerge. Meanwhile, the state seems incapable of holding onto its information—creating another problem for the state if secrecy proponents are correct in predicting that some portion of the state’s information is essential to keep private for national security.
1. Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets (New York: Viking, 2002), 81.
2. Daniel Ellsberg, “Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing,” Social Research 77, no. 3 (2010): 773–804, 778.
3. Jana Costas and Christopher Grey, Secrecy at Work: The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2016), 138–140; see also Brian Rappert, How to Look Good in a War: Justifying and Challenging State Violence (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 6.
4. Michael Herman, Intelligence Power in Peace and War (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 328–330.
5. Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans. and ed. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), 314, 332–333.
6. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972), 652.
7. Ellsberg, Secrets, x.
8. The Oxford English Dictionary definition is “the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible; that can be seen through” (OED, 2nd ed., 1989), 419.
9. Max Weber, Economy and Society, volume 2, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 992.
10. Recent examples of books that argue this point include Jason Ross Arnold, Secrecy in the Sunshine Era (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014); Ronald Goldfarb, In Confidence: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009), 37–58; and Heidi Kitrosser, Reclaiming Accountability: Transparency, Executive Power, and the U.S. Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
11. See, e.g., Freedom of Information Act, Public Law 89-554, 80 Stat. 383 (1966) (codified as amended at 5 U.S.C. § 552) (establishing disclosure requirements for federal administrative agencies); Government in the Sunshine Act, Public Law 94-409, 90 Stat. 1241 (1976) (codified as amended at 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)) (establishing open meeting requirements for federal administrative agencies); Cal. Gov’t Code § 11120 et seq. (establishing open meeting requirements for California public agencies).
12. Louis D. Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, reprint ed. (New York: A. M. Kelley 1914, 1986), 92 (“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”).
13. Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d 681, 683 (6th Cir. 2002).
14. Congress did not use the FOIA title in originally enacting the statute as an amendment to the Administrative Procedure Act, but the statutory provisions were referred to by that title soon afterward.
15. For a summary of previous government commissions criticizing overclassification, see Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 103rd Cong., Report Pursuant to Public Law, S. Doc. 105-2, xxi (Comm. Print 1997), G-1–G-2. This report, known as the Moynihan Commission in honor of its chairman Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, itself became part of this long, blue ribbon trail.
16. Jonathan Easley, “Obama Says His Is ‘Most Transparent Administration’ Ever,” The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room, February 14, 2013. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/283335-obama-this-is-the-most-transparent-administration-in-history
17. Greg Munno, “FOIA Suits Jump in 2014,” The FOIA Project, December 22, 2014. http://foiaproject.org/2014/12/22/foia-suits-jump-in-2014/
18. “The White House Beat, Uncovered: What the Hacks of 1600 Penn Really Think,” Politico, May/June 2014. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/04/whca-survey-the-white-house-beat-uncovered-106071
19. See, for example, Arnold, Secrecy in the Sunshine Era, 6; Kathleen Clark, “‘A New Era of Openness?’ Disclosing Intelligence to Congress Under Obama,” Constitutional Commentary 26, no. 3 (2010): 313–337; Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr., “Transparency, Accountability, and Competency: An Essay on the Obama Administration, Google Government, and the Difficulties of Securing Effective Governance,” University of Miami Law Review 65, no. 2 (2011): 449–482, 467–475.
20. Trevor Timm, “2011 in Review: The Year Secrecy Jumped the Shark,” Deep Links (Blog), December 23, 2011. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/12/2011-review-year-secrecy-jumped-shark
21. McBurney v. Young, 133 S.Ct. 1709, 1718–1719 (2013).
22. For accounts of the federal government’s resistance to disclosure, see Thomas Blanton, “Beyond the Balancing Test,” in National Security and Open Government: Striking the Right Balance (Syracuse, N.Y.: Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 2003), 34–54; Christina E. Wells, “‘National Security’ Information and the Freedom of Information Act,” Administrative Law Review 56, no. 4 (2004): 1195–1221, 1201.
23. Nancy Chang, “How Democracy Dies: The War on Our Civil Liberties,” in Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom, ed. Cynthia Brown (New York: New Press, 2003), 33–51, 36–39; Wells, “‘National Security’ Information,” 1197; Kristen Elizabeth Uhl, “The Freedom of Information Act Post–9/11: Balancing the Public’s Right to Know, Critical Infrastructure Protection, and Homeland Security,” American University Law Review 53, no. 1 (2003): 261–311; Patrice McDermott, “Withhold and Control: Information in the Bush Administration,” Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy 12, no. 3 (2003): 671–691, 672–674.
24. Indeed, commentators made similar complaints about the Clinton administration. Blanton, “Beyond the Balancing Test,” 51–54 (describing secrecy during the current Bush administration and arguing that it began during Clinton’s second term); Jonathan Turley, “Paradise Lost: The Clinton Administration and the Erosion of Executive Privilege,” Maryland Law Review 60, no. 1 (2001): 205–257 (condemning the Clinton administration’s reliance on sweeping executive privilege claims to keep information about White House activities secret).
25. See, e.g., John Ashcroft, “Memorandum for Heads of All Federal Departments and Agencies on the Freedom of Information Act,” October 12, 2001. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB84/Ashcroft%20Memorandum.pdf (declaring that, “[i]t is only through a well-informed citizenry that the leaders of our nation remain accountable to the governed and the American people can be assured that neither fraud nor government waste is concealed,” while also advising agencies that DOJ will defend decisions to deny FOIA requests “unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records”).
26. See, e.g., NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978) (noting that “[t]he basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed,” before proceeding to affirm denial of the FOIA request on the grounds that the witness statements in an unfair labor practices hearing before the National Labor Relations Board fell within a FOIA exception because its release would interfere with enforcement proceedings); Environmental Protection Agency v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 80 (1973) (characterizing FOIA as “broadly conceived” and intended “to permit access to official information long shielded unnecessarily from public view and . . . to create a judicially enforceable public right to secure such information from possibly unwilling official hands,” before proceeding to hold that an agency’s classification of documents may not be reviewed by court in camera).
27. With respect to matters of national security and foreign policy, for example, most challenges to agency denials to disclose documents end at the summary judgment stage, when courts typically defer to agency affidavits stating the applicability of FOIA exemption (b)(1). James T. O’Reilly, Federal Information Disclosure § 11:11, 524 (3rd ed., 2000) (discussing 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)). And as a political matter, disappointment among disclosure advocates about the disjunction between the public statements of presidents in favor of openness and their actual efforts to keep information secret dates back to the earliest years of FOIA. Elias Clark, “Holding Government Accountable: The Amended Freedom of Information Act,” Yale Law Journal 84, no. 4 (1975): 741–769, 746.
28. This distinction between transparency as a primary, intrinsic value and as a tool to meet other values has been well-developed elsewhere. David Heald, “Transparency as an Instrumental Value,” in Transparency: The Key to Better Governance?, eds. Christopher Hood and David Heald (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006), 59–74, 68; Lawrence Lessig, “Against Transparency,” New Republic, October 9, 2009, 37–41 (questioning the likely consequences of what he describes as the “naked transparency” movement); Michael Schudson, The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015); William J. Stuntz, “Secret Service: Against Privacy and Transparency,” New Republic, April 17, 2006, 12–15 (“Transparency makes politics a running argument about decision-making, not about decisions”).
29. Gilbert Schoenfeld, Necessary Secrets (New York: Norton, 2010), 22, 267.
30. The most vocal proponents of transparency in its strongest form are journalists and open government advocates. See, e.g., National Freedom of Information Coalition, “About NFOIC—History, Board, Staff, Bylaws,” last updated 2016. http://www.nfoic.org/about-nfoic (describing the group as “a nonpartisan alliance of citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys”); Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “RCFP Freedom of Information Resources,” last updated October 2016. https://www.rcfp.org/ (describing organization as “the nation’s leading advocate for open government issues on behalf of journalists”).