WASHINGTON — Paul McMasters may have retired in January from his full-time job as a defender of the First Amendment and the public’s right to government information, but he didn’t retire his passion for his causes.
McMasters, accepting the James Madison Award from the American Library Association, told an audience at the National Press Club today that sometimes a little outrage is necessary in making sure that the public has the information it requires for a democratic republic to work.
He thanked audience members for attending the First Amendment Center’s National FOI Day and for their work on behalf of the public’s right to know during a time of increasing government secrecy.
“In fact, the silver lining to increasingly dark clouds of government secrecy is how those very clouds have galvanized and organized” the freedom-of-information community, the former First Amendment Center ombudsman said.
McMasters then turned his attention to the role of government officials in general, and the Bush administration in particular, in blocking access to information.
“Some elected officials have a downright visceral aversion to sharing information with citizens,” he said. “Over the past six years, especially, there has been an unrelenting campaign to put more and more information beyond the reach of historians, of the press, of the public.
“As Tom Blanton of the National Security Archives and others have documented, the Bush administration came to town determined to reduce the flow of information to the public.”
McMasters said that Bush hadn’t been in Washington long before he halted the release of thousands of documents from Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“This chilling alarm about information policy wasn’t necessarily the product of some sinister plot but rather a well-thought out strategy to increase executive power by increasing the control over the flow of information from the administration.”
The strategy was very successful, McMasters argued. Other factors, not least of which the terrorist attacks of 9/11, also helped the White House clamp down on the flow of information, he said.
“The current administration has built a reputation of being the most effective, sophisticated and disciplined in our history in its ability to master the message, every hour of every news cycle,” McMasters said. “This policy goes far beyond the delay and denial of access to information important to the democratic process.”
The White House information policy risks “politicization of intelligence, it erases and rewrites scientific information … it sanctions the use of propaganda and disinformation and it serves up targeted leaks of classified information for political purposes while decrying and punishing leaks” from others.
McMasters, who has worked on FOI issues for more than 20 years, credited his fellows in the FOI community: “You have kept me sane and civilized as I wrestled with these issues.”
“Over the years, I have tried to follow the example” of others, “to be nonpartisan, civil and to work by the rules … but I have to tell you, it has been hard,” he said. "This environment of secrecy … this attempt to control the public mind” through the control of information, he said, “really, really ticks me off.”
“That it has been tremendously successful, that it has hardly been challenged — other than by the FOI community — that it is a singular affront to democratic principles, are problems to be dealt with, yes it is true, rationally, but it is also true that it is a damnable outrage.”
"We must convince everyone from the top levels of government to the grassroots that without such openness government officials will not be accountable, government itself will not be better, (and) history will not be served," McMasters said. "We must tackle that task with confidence, intelligence, commitment and perseverance. But I think a little outrage from time to time would kick it up a notch."