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Government Openness Lacking, Needed: Lee Hamilton '52

Government Openness Lacking, Needed: Lee Hamilton '52

August 23, 2014

"Secrecy and a widespread failure to share information both within government and with the American people remain major barriers to the effective operation of representative democracy," writes veteran statesman Lee H. Hamilton in a newspaper opinion column.

"One of the fundamental lessons of the 9/11 tragedy was that our government carried a share of blame for the failure to stop the attacks," writes Hamilton, who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and, after retirement from Congress, was vice chair of the 9/11 Commission. "Not because it was asleep at the switch or ignorant of the dangers that al-Qaeda posed, but because the agencies charged with our safety did not share what they knew, either up and down the chain of command, or with each other. The attacks were preventable with shared information ... So, it’s worrisome that today it seems harder than ever to know what our government is doing, and not just when it comes to national security. Secrecy and a widespread failure to share information both within government and with the American people remain major barriers to the effective operation of representative democracy."

The Democrat opines, "This unwillingness to be open often arises for the wrong reasons. In many cases, officials claim they’re trying to prevent harm to the national security, but actually want to avoid embarrassing themselves or to sidestep the checks and balances created by our Constitution. So, secretiveness infiltrates government culture."

In Hamilton's view, "Failing to share information makes us weaker. It enfeebles congressional oversight, which is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy and which, when aggressively carried out by fully informed legislators, can strengthen policy-making. It makes it far more difficult to maintain our system of checks and balances. It exacerbates mistrust between branches of government and between the government and the American people. And it chips away at the foundation of our system, which rests on a public that is well-informed about what government is doing and why. Without that information, we are poorer in our ability to exercise discriminating judgment on the conduct of policy and of politicians, and we lose our advantage over authoritarian societies: the spread of knowledge to people searching for a solution to our society’s challenges and problems.

"In short, on most issues, we’re better off if the American people know what’s going on. Full disclosure doesn’t produce good government by itself, but it makes it more likely."

Access the complete essay, which appears in a number of newspapers, by clicking here.Lee Hamilton Basketball DePauw

A history major and basketball standout at DePauw, Lee Hamilton is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He has authored three books: How Congress Works and Why You Should Care; Strengthening Congress; and A Creative Tension: The Foreign Policy Roles of the President and Congress. He co-authored (with former Gov. Thomas Kean) Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. He's also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Hamilton received the 2014 Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress last month.

Congressman Hamilton has been a frequent visitor to DePauw over the years and delivered an Ubben Lecture on March 15, 2011.