Democracy thrives on information

People interested in perpetuating a free society must always remember two things:

First, power tends to be self-reinforcing, those who have it try to maintain and expand it. Second, information is power.

Thus it follows that people in power tend to want to control information. And that's why in this democracy we have the First Amendment as well federal and state freedom of information laws. If the power of government ultimately resides in the people they must have access to information about what it's doing.

There is a constant tension between government efforts to control access and pushback from citizens who believe that information belongs to them.

It's a good tension. There are circumstances in which the government can legitimately keep secrets. But the vitality of democracy and the lessons of history demand relentless scepticism about whether those secrets truly serve our national security and welfare or simply protect those in power.

These questions arise almost daily.

Last week in Franklin Circuit Court the latest skirmishes took place in a three-year battle over access to information about how the Cabinet for Health and Family Services handles cases in which children are killed or almost killed.

Nationally, debate rages about whether Pfc. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, men who thought the government was keeping too many secrets and took it upon themselves to bring some of them into the light, are traitors or heroes.

And there was a Lexington premier just days ago of Our Nixon, a documentary co-produced by University of Kentucky law professor Brian L. Frye. The film offers an intimate look at the administration of President Richard Nixon through home movies made by staff members. The movies, seized by the FBI post-Watergate and now in the National Archives (and available to the public) are silent, so a lot of the audio comes from secret White House recordings that the Nixon administration fought hard but unsuccessfully to keep secret.

Given that people in power must pass laws to reduce their own power by opening up government, transparency advances come most often in reaction to disruptive events, like the Watergate scandal, that reveal the dark downside of secrecy. It was post-Watergate that the federal government and many states, including Kentucky, passed or enhanced open records and meetings laws.

The Founders had lived under the thumb of a British government that controlled information, licensed newspapers and sometimes decided in advance what they could publish. They knew that tyranny thrives without a free press and citizenry to investigate, question, even villify the government.

When government officials, no matter how popular, say "trust me," it's time to push back.

Remember the Pentagon Papers that revealed the lies that led us into Vietnam, remember the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that paved our way into Iraq, and remember the children who died of abuse, even after multiple warnings that they weren't safe.

Remember that information is power and in this democracy the people are supposed to have the power.