When honesty is only an illusion

Trust in government — essential to a democracy — depends greatly on whether citizens believe the government’s dealings are conducted honestly and above board. In the United States, the means of verifying that is the Freedom of Information Act, a law laying the ground rules for access to federal records, passed in 1967 and strengthened twice since then.

But a new Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University survey finds that Americans are deeply skeptical of how well government abides by the law, with 61 percent believing that federal agencies "only sometimes, rarely or never" obey the law.

This is hardly surprising since the Bush administration, by nature secretive, became even more so after 9/11. In Oct., 2001, it overturned the standing policy that information should be withheld from the public only if its release would cause "foreseeable harm." The Justice department instructed the agencies to err on the side of nondisclosure and said it would back them up in court. The following year the Bush White House told the agencies they should withhold information that was "sensitive" — an elastic term that invites abuse — but unclassified.

The results were predictable. By one measure, the volume of declassified material fell 80 percent by 2006.

Barack Obama promised to change that and on his first day in office issue a memo to the agencies telling them to adopt a "presumption of disclosure" and he went even further and told the agencies to act first to make information public and not to wait to be asked.

There are faint signs that the new policy may be working. The survey found that after three years of dramatic declines the erosion of public confidence in the openness of their government has slowed and even reversed. Last year 44 percent of Americans felt their government was "highly secretive" compared to only 22 percent in 2006. This year the number is 40 percent. It’s a start.

Openness is a process, not a declaration, but Obama’s declaration — "in the face of doubt, openness prevails"– is a good starting point. Besides, it’s not only the law, it’s good government.