By THOMAS HARGROVE and GUIDO H. STEMPEL III
Most Americans think the federal government operates with "too much secrecy" and overwhelmingly believe that public access to official records is critical to democracy, according to a Scripps Howard News Service poll.
First Amendment advocates hailed the findings of the survey of 1,007 adult residents of the United States conducted at the request of the American Society of Newspaper Editors as part of its observance of National Sunshine Week, which starts Sunday.
"People clearly think that their federal government is more secretive than state or local governments. And they are probably right," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. "It has become more difficult to get information out of the federal government."
Andy Alexander, chairman of the newspaper editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, said the survey confirms that people believe their national government is excessively secretive.
"We commissioned the survey so that we could show, scientifically, what we know anecdotally — citizens want the federal government to be more open and transparent," said Alexander, Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers.
The survey, conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University, found that 59 percent of Americans believe the national government has "too much secrecy." Forty-five percent were as critical of the level of secrecy in their state and local governments.
The findings come at a time when news organizations are challenging hundreds of federal secrets, such as the identities of 500 prison detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or records in the investigation of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s leaked identity.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft set a new tone for federal secrecy when, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he issued a memo promising to defend federal officials for deciding "to withhold records, in whole or in part" from the public.
"Right now, all of the incentive is for classifying information," said Lee Hamilton, a former member of the 9/11 commission and president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "You might say the motto is: ‘When in doubt, classify.’ "
In the poll, 86 percent said they are "very interested" or "somewhat interested" in the "actions and activities" of state and local government, while 88 percent expressed similar interest in the federal government. Fifty-two percent said they are "very interested" in federal activities compared to 38 percent expressing the highest level of interest in local and state government.
"Americans are intensely interested in what goes on at all levels of government," Alexander said. "Public officials should take note of that. Citizens want to know more about their government, and they clearly do not want more secrecy."
ASNE is spearheading Sunshine Week, in which various news organizations and civic groups seek to raise public awareness of the importance of open government.
The survey asked: "Do you believe that public access to government records is critical to the functioning of good government, or do you believe that it plays only a minor role?" Sixty-two percent said records access is critical, 25 percent said it has a minor role, and 13 percent were undecided or gave other responses.
Respondents were also asked to rate whether various governments are "open and transparent" or "closed and secretive." Only 10 percent thought that state and local governments tend to be "very secretive" and 30 percent said these governments can be "somewhat secretive." Overall, 55 percent said they think these governments are open to public scrutiny.
But the federal government is regarded with greater suspicion. Only 33 percent said Uncle Sam is "very open" or "somewhat open," while 40 percent said it is "somewhat secretive" and 22 percent said it is "very secretive." In both questions, 5 percent were undecided or gave a different response.
There is almost no opposition to so-called "sunshine" or "freedom-of-information" laws that guarantee public access to government records, official meetings and court records. Only about one person in 20 complained that these laws provide "too much access."
About half of the people polled said freedom-of-information legislation gives the public "the right amount of access" to official information, while more than a quarter complained the laws give them "too little access" to public records. About one in six people didn’t know enough about sunshine laws to have an opinion.
The poll found that Americans are divided when asked to select the legal standard to determine when information should be released.
Forty-six percent agreed with the statement: "Government records should be considered public and that information should be withheld only if a government agency can show that release of the information would do harm."
But 42 percent agreed with the statement: "It is the responsibility of the government to protect the information it holds and that records should be made public only if the citizen can make a sound legal case for its release."
Twelve percent were undecided.
People who depend on newspapers _ rather than television or other sources_ to tell them about government activities tend to be more insistent that records be made public and to be more critical of government secrecy. Sixty-two percent of people who rely on newspapers said they believe the federal government is too secretive.
The poll also found that Americans rarely interact with their government and infrequently seek records. Among the findings:
- 37 percent have attended a meeting or hearing of their local government.
- 15 percent have attended a state hearing or meeting.
- 8 percent have gone to a federal hearing or meeting.
- 12 percent have sought records from City Hall or other local agencies.
- 8 percent have asked for state records.
- 6 percent has sought federal records.
Generally, Americans report they found government officials, at all levels, to be either "very helpful" or "somewhat helpful" when they’ve sought records.
The survey was conducted nationwide by telephone from Feb. 19 to March 3 at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is the director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.)