We tolerate secrecy at our peril

Our government is obsessed with security these days. It scripts news conferences, even to the point of vetting reporter questions before they start. Ottawa suppresses documents in the name of national security.

Our government is obsessed with security these days.

It scripts news conferences, even to the point of vetting reporter questions before they start.

Ottawa suppresses documents in the name of national security. Witness the Afghan-detainee issue, which languishes before a parliamentary committee due to security concerns.

And through Message Event Proposals, even the simplest information requests are reviewed by political operatives working for the Prime Minister’s Office, which ensures any information benefits the government’s public relations machine before it is made public.

Anything deemed suspect is held back – hushed up.

This is the state of Canadian democracy in 2010.

Society has come a long way.

To show you how far, we just have to look south of the border to a statement made by John F. Kennedy 49 years ago, in an address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Despite its age, Kennedy’s speech is as valid today as it was then.

Have a look for yourself…

“The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society.

“And we are, as a society, inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings.

“We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.

“Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.

“Even today, there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.

“And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.

“That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it’s in my control. And no official in my administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censure the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes. Or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.

“For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day.

“It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligent, economic, scientific and political operations. Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumour is printed, no secret is revealed.

“No president should fear public scrutiny of his programs, for from that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition, and both are necessary.

“I am not asking your newspapers to support an administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people for I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

“I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers, I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors, because as a wise man once said, An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.

“We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

“Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.

“And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment, the only business in America specifically protected by the constitution, not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental. Not to simply give the public what it wants, but to inform, arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

“This means greater coverage and analysis of international news, for it is no longer far away and foreign, but close at hand and local.

“It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission.

“And, it means finally, that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security.

“And so it is to the printing press, to the recorder of man’s deeds, to the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news, that we look to for strength and assistance, confident that with your help he will be what he was born to be … free and independent.”