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Dark, Bureaucratic Corners Need Sun

March 14, 2007

To celebrate Sunshine Week, let's file a Freedom of Information request. Or ask a probing question at a local meeting. Or let's request a copy of our town's emergency response plan.

Since it started in 2002 in Florida, Sunshine Week has been devoted to demanding more openness from the government - except on that request for an emergency response plan? Some people already tried, with abysmal results. In January, reporters went to 404 agencies around the country, asking for copies of local emergency response plans. The plans were mandated after a deadly chemical spill in 1984 in Bhopal, India, and they include information such as evacuation plans in case of a hazardous material spill.

But though federal law says copies are to be given to anyone who asks, only about four in 10 officials were willing to comply. Some officials not only denied the requests, but alerted local police that someone had the audacity to ask for them. And the region where officials were most prone to say no? Here, in New England.

Oh, but we've already seen how quickly the law can be circumvented, little annoyances like due process swept aside in times of war. Our president and others say 9/11 changed everything, but bad things happen in the dark, like the abominations at Abu Ghraib - both torture and prisoners held indefinitely without recourse. On the domestic front, secrecy in government begets us policy decisions based on whims and political pressure, and not science. In secret, here in Connecticut, we get sealed court cases, hidden on a judge's whim.

To promote openness, on Monday the Hartford Public Library hosted a live webcast of two panel discussions from Washington. Panelists included Susan Wood, who in 2005 stepped down as assistant commissioner for women's health for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She left over the agency's decision to delay a ruling on Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill, which an FDA scientific panel had recommended be available without a prescription. Science was trumped by political pressure, she said. Representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Coalition Against Censorship, among other organizations, also talked about the dangers of suppressing information.

The library hosts the webcast because, said Richard Frieder, Hartford Public Library associate librarian for community development, "part of the mission of the library is to help people participate in the democratic process."

That sounds so wonky, doesn't it, a phrase like "democratic process." When people don't even bother to vote, what is this democratic process?

But while you were off whining about how it's all rigged, and who trusts politicians anyway, you don't have to turn the newspaper pages back too far to survey the damage of citizens ceding their responsibilities.

This may be the most secretive White House in history, and its abuses of power are legendary. Just last week, the FBI director apologized for his agency's too-enthusiastic use of national security letters, that most secretive of documents employed by our government. Add that to the out-of-control tracking of global financial transfers last year, and the secret wiretaps the year before that.

We are at war, and information is a weapon, but short of broadcasting troop movements, what we don't know really can hurt us. Happy Sunshine Week. Now go make some one in officialdom uncomfortable. Tell them your Constitution sent you.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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