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Freedom of Information Laws and Policies:

Quotes on official information, privacy, open government and secrecy

compiled by Jeremy Lewis, PhD, revised 21 June '12
Thanks for some of these to Access Reports; FreedomInfo.org; CJOG, and Brechner center.

Global Progress on Access to Information
"Making good use of both moral and efficiency claims, the international freedom-of-information movement stands on the verge of changing the definition of democratic governance. The movement is creating a new norm, a new expectation, and a new threshold requirement for any government to be considered a democracy." -- Thomas S. Blanton, "The World's Right to Know," Foreign Policy, July/August 2002.

"Access to public records gives citizens the opportunity to participate in public life, help set priorities, and hold their governments accountable. A free flow of information can be an important tool for building trust between a government and its citizens. It also improves communication within government to make the public administration more efficient and more effective in delivering services to its constituency. But, perhaps most importantly, access to information is a fundamental human right and can be used to help people exercise other critical human rights, such as clean water, healthcare, and education. Access to information has been more recently recognized as an instrument that can be utilized to fight poverty in developing nations."  The Carter Center, Americas program,  http://cartercenter.org/peace/americas/nav_question4.html, accessed 11 May 2009.

Open Government, open society, public information, citizens' knowledge:
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” -- Louis D. Brandeis, "What Publicity Can Do," Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 20, 1913, reprinted in Louis D. Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How The Bankers Use It, 92 (1932).

"When I am president, the era of Bush/Cheney secrecy will be over," said Sen. Hillary Clinton in a speech to the Newspaper Association of America on April 15, 2008.  "I will empower the federal government to operate from a presumption of openness, not secrecy... I will direct my administration to prevent needless classification of information that ought to be shared with the public." http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2008/04/clinton041508.html

"Excessive administration secrecy... feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public's confidence in government." Sen. John McCain, candidate for US president, 2008.

"I'll turn the page on a growing empire of classified information. We'll protect sources and methods, but we won't use sources and methods to hide the truth." Sen. Barack Obama, candidate for US president, 2008.

"open government is fundamentally an American issue, not a Republican or Democrat issue" -- Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) 2005. Speech, paragraph 22.
"Using party affiliation as a proxy for ideology, Cornyn is half right.  Self-identified conservatives and liberals were both interested in transparency, just different types of transparency....  Conservatives were more concerned than liberals about accessing safety-related information.  Self-identified liberals ... were more concerned with accessing government information on principle and for good governance concerns."  (Piotrowski and  Van Ryzin, 2007).

"We need a return to transparency and a system of checks and balances, to a president who respects Congress' role of oversight and accountability."  Sen. Hillary Clinton, candidate for US president, 2008

"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful . . .and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." -- George Orwell, 1946

“Nothing could be more axiomatic for a democracy than the principle of exposing the process of government to relentless public criticism and scrutiny.” (Francis E. Rourke, 1960, p. 691).

"Not only have the legislatures of member states been forced to take a back seat.  There has also often been a dreadful paucity of information about the background of decisions taken by the council of ministers and carried out by the European Commission.  Anyone who has ever tried to get sensitive information from Brussels -- for example, information about the net contributions of member states to the budget of the European Union -- will recognize the problem." -- Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), p.119.

"After all, there is no need for either national executives or the European Commission to invoke 'secrecy' in economic and social matters, as if they were matters that needed to be protected from public scrutiny in the fashion of military or national security decisions.  A second avenue of reform should lead to the establishing of higher standards for public access to information about decision-making, not only within but also between national governments, especially in relation to the proceedings of the Council of Ministers and the European Commission.  Such freedom of information will be required not only to protect the public from the growth of bureaucratic discretion, but also to empower legislators in their dealings with administrators, whether at home or in Brussels." -- Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), pp.120-121.

"When intermediate associations are weak and the state machine so powerful, private interests are always tempted to establish clientele relations with the state.  They seek favours in the dark, so to speak, rather than demanding justice in the light of day." -- Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), p.123.

"Hoy todos estamos en una caja de cristal, porque hoy todo se ve, todo se lee, y todo se escucha."  -- Vicente Fox, President of Mexico, March 2004. (Today we all find ourselves in a glass case, because now everything is visible, everything is read, everything is heard.)

"A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both." Pres. James Madison, August 4, 1822

"Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not." Sen. Patrick Leahy, 1996

"When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and - eventually - incapable of determining their own destinies." Pres. Richard Nixon, 1972

"No one has demonstrated that an ignorant society is a safe society." Lucy Dalglish, executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 2002

"...a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people." Pres. John F. Kennedy, 1962

"When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people." Judge Damon Keith, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

"...those who won our independence believed that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government." Justice Brandeis, Whitney vs. California, 1927

"The more that government becomes secret, the less it remains free." James Russell Wiggins, newspaper editor, 1956

"We seek a free flow of information...we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values." John F. Kennedy, February 1962

"We must never forget that the free flow of information is essential to a democratic society." Pres. Clinton, veto of Intelligence Re-Authorization Bill, 2000

"Government ought to be all outside and no inside." Pres. Woodrow Wilson

"Democratic governance involves public debate and open decision-making; hence, the organization of interest groups, the free exchange of ideas, opinions and information is essential. Addressing the information and communication needs of the poor is also essential - the poor often lack information that is vital to their lives – information on basic rights and entitlements, information on public services, health, education, employment etc. They also lack visibility and voice to enable them to define policy priorities and access resources." United Nations Development Programme, http://www.undp.org/oslocentre/citzpart.htm, accessed 7 Sep. 2004.

"Official information that enhances people's capacity to exercise their rights belongs in the public domain. This information must be accessible and understandable." -- United Nations Development Programme, Access Position paper, http://www.undp.org/oslocentre/access_pos.htm, accessed 7 Sep 2004.

"I believe in open government.  I've always believed in open government.  I don't e-mail, however.  And there's a reason: I don't want you reading my personal stuff." [...] "I don't think you're entitled to read my mail between my daughters and me." -- President George W. Bush (43) to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 14 April 2005, repeating a claim made shortly after becoming president.  [In fact, presidents' personal records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and his personal e-mail would not be subject to the Presidential Records Act.] Access Reports 31(8) (20 April 2005):1.

"The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." Pres. Harry Truman

“The free exchange of information between the government and the people who create that government, the people who elect that government, is absolutely crucial to the democratic process. One of our greatest freedoms is to have a right to know what our government is doing.” -- Courtney Cox, a Benton, Ill. attorney who won an appellate court ruling affirming that a FOIA requester is not required to explain why the information is being sought, 2005.

“A ‘leak system’ is ponderous, frustrating, costly and counterintuitive for a nation that values its democratic traditions. But it is absolutely essential as long as our leaders keep secrets that don't need to be kept, and as long as they can't resist putting themselves in the best light by keeping the rest of us in the dark.” -- American Press Institute commentary, 2005.

“With the passage of the FOIA, the burden of proof shifted from the individual to the government. Those seeking information are no longer required to show a need for information. Instead, the `need to know' standard has been replaced by a `right to know' doctrine. The government now has to justify the need for secrecy.” -- Introduction to the Citizens Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act, published by the House Committee on Government Reform, September 2005

"Open government is strongly correlated to quality of life. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it (plans which cause injustice are revealed and opposed before implementation). Open government exposes, and so corrects, corruption. Historically, the most resilient form of open government is one where leaking and publication is easy. Public leaking, being an act of ethical defection to the majority, is by its nature a democratising force.
Hence a system enables everyone to leak safely to a ready audience is the most cost effective means of promoting good government -- in health and medicine, in food supply, in human rights, in arms controls and democratic institutions." -- WikiLeaks.org, Jan. 2007


"One of the things that almost never works is secrecy - particularly secrecy in defense of dumbness." Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, 1996

"The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings," Pres. John F. Kennedy, 1961

"Secrecy and a free, democratic government don't mix." Pres. Harry Truman

"The Bush administration has made secrecy, not sunshine, its default position." Sens. Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin, Restore America's Freedom of Information, 2003

"Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety." Pres. Woodrow Wilson

"Secrecy is for losers." Sen. Patrick Moynihan

"Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of regular government." Jeremy Bentham

"Secrecy has its place, but governments are always tempted to overuse the 'secret' stamp. When that happens, it can come at the cost of the public's stake in such other values as safety or clean air and water." Sens. Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin, Restore America's Freedom of Information, 2003

"Secrecy 1-78. Any group beginning from a position of weakness that intends to use force and violence to prosecute its political aims must initially adopt a covert approach for their planning and activities. This practice can become counterproductive once an active insurgency begins. Excessive secrecy can limit insurgent freedom of action, lessen or distort information about insurgent goals and ideals, and restrict communication within the insurgency. One of the ways insurgent groups attempt to avoid the effects of too much secrecy is splitting into political and military wings, as in the case of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, to deal separately with the public (political) requirements of an insurgency while still conducting clandestine (military) actions. -- p.1-14. US Army & Marines Field Manual FM 3-24, (Final Draft, June 2006), accessed on 5 July 2006 at http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24fd.pdf

DOD DOCTRINE: "Operations security" (OPSEC) refers to the practice of identifying and controlling information that could be exploited by a hostile observer to discern intelligence about U.S. operations.  "OPSEC is a methodology that denies critical information to an
adversary." ... "Unlike security programs that seek to protect classified information, OPSEC measures identify, control, and protect generally unclassified evidence that is associated with sensitive operations and activities."  See "Operations Security," Joint Publication 3-13.3, June 29, 2006:  http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_13_3.pdf, accessed 17 July 2006.


"Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
"Those willing to give up a little liberty for a little security deserve neither security nor liberty." Benjamin Franklin
"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know." Pres. John Adams

"The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of its people, and a people strong enough and well informed enough to maintain its sovereign control over its government." Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, 1938

"The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." Patrick Henry June 5, 1788

"Trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty!" John Adams, 1772

"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers." John Adams

Right to Know:
"Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people's right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately." Judge Damon Keith, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Security and openness:

“Democracy dies behind closed doors.”-- Judge Damon Keith, Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d 681 (August 26, 2002)

In releasing redacted images of prison abuse in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Judge Hellerstein observed, "My task is not to defer to our worst fears, but to interpret and apply the law, in this case the Freedom of Information Act, which advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government." (American Civil Liberties Union, et al. v. Department of Defense, et al. Civil Action No. 04 Civ. 4151 (AKH), U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Sept. 29, 2005)

"I'll lead a new era of openness," "I'll turn the page on a growing empire of classified information, and restore the balance we've lost between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in a democratic society by creating a new National Declassification Center." which would "serve as a clearinghouse to set rules and regulations for declassification for federal agencies, and to make declassification secure but routine, efficient, and cost-effective."  "We'll protect sources and methods, but we won't use sources and methods as pretexts to hide the truth.  Our history doesn't belong to Washington, it belongs to America." -- Sen. Barack Obama, St. Paul University, 2 Oct. 2007. [Center is based on Moynihan Commission Report.]

“We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right.” -- Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers)

"Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe." Pres. Abraham Lincoln, 1861

"We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules and preserve our open society as if there were no terrorists." Thomas Friedman, columnist, The New York Times, 2001

"...the only effective restraint upon executive policy in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry - in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government." Justice Stewart, Pentagon Papers case, 1971

"The label of 'national security' may cover a multitude of sins." -- former Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

“Power always has to be kept in check; power exercised in secret, especially under the cloak of national security, is doubly dangerous.” -- Former Sen. William Proxmire, who died Dec. 15, 2005.

“The only leadership I see right now on this issue (cyber security) in the federal government is in trying to hide attacks that have been successful. If senior management (in federal civilian agencies) can avoid letting the public know that the attacks are happening, they don't have an incentive to protect those systems.” -- Alan Paller, director of research for the Bethesda, MD.-based SANS Institute, 2005.

“Information sharing should not be impeded because of excessive classification rules …. we must work to extinguish the belief that those who collect information own it.” -- William P. Crowell, Markle Task Force on National Security in The Information Age, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, 8 Nov. 2005

“Even more shocking is a proposal to create a new biodefense research agency that would be completely exempt from FOIA ...We can all agree that the nation must prepare, but it should not do so in abject secrecy.” -- Sen. Patrick Leahy, commenting on Senate Bill 1873, 2005.

“I would argue that in times of war, sealed lips sink entire democracies. If we don't have access to vital information, we lose everything.” -- Ted Gup, professor of journalism, Case Western Reserve University, at a meeting of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, 2005.

Intelligence information:
"Just because information is stolen, that doesn't make it more useful,” said Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy national defense director. The new federal intelligence director, John Negroponte, had announced the start of the Open Source Center to collect and analyze information from everyday sources worldwide, operating from the CIA headquarters at Langley, Va. (From CJOG, reported 9 Nov. 05.)

Wartime operations security:
“If I am able to determine the enemy’s dispositions while at the same time I conceal my own, then I can concentrate and he must divide.” -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 400-320 BC

“He passes through life most securely who has least reason to reproach himself with complaisance toward his enemies.” -- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars, 404 BC

“Little minds try to defend everything at once, but sensible people look at the main point only; they parry the worst blows and stand a little hurt if thereby they avoid a greater one. If you try to hold everything, you hold nothing.” -- Frederick the Great, Instructions for His Generals, 1747

“To keep your actions and your plans secret always has been a very good thing . . . Marcus Crassus said to one who asked him when he was going to move the army: ‘Do you believe that you will be the only one not to hear the trumpet?” -- Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, 1521

“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” -- Sun Tzu, c. 500 BC, The Art of War

US Central Command’s offensive air special planning group, in the Royal Saudi Air Force headquarters, was part of the JFACC staff and eventually became known as the “Black Hole” because of the extreme secrecy surrounding its activities. The Black Hole was led by a USAF brigadier general, ... when Iraq invaded Kuwait. His small staff grew gradually to about 30 and included RAF, Army, Navy, USMC, and USAF personnel. By 15 September, the initial air planning stage was complete; the President was advised there were sufficient air forces to execute and sustain an offensive strategic air attack against Iraq, should he order one. However, because of operations security concerns, most of CENTAF headquarters was denied information on the plan until only a few hours before execution.  -- Final Report to Congress, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, April 1992

More specific quotes on executive actions:
“It's positive in the sense that it puts the president on record as recognizing that there is a problem with the FOIA process. The negative is that the focus is on process rather than getting at the root problems – too-broad exemptions and complete lack of any penalties either for individuals or agencies that violate FOIA.” -- Mark Tapscott, the Heritage Foundation, on President W. Bush’s Executive Order on FOIA.

“Studies show that people are excited about these [nano]technologies. But they have little trust right now in either government or industry to manage the risks and consistently ask for more transparency. They want more disclosure and they want more involvement.” -- David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, The Smithsonian Institution, testifying at a 17 Nov. 2005 House Science Committee hearing.