Calibrated Openness

Article excerpt

Ann Florini's article ("Behind Closed Doors," Spring 2004) is certainly right that transparency is a vital aspect of democracy. But we must also recognize the unintended irony of Florini's recourse to the wisdom of James Madison. The same man who observed that democracy without information is "but prologue to a farce or a tragedy" also participated in the US Constitutional Convention of 1787, the secrecy of whose proceedings was the key to its success. While governments may hide behind closed doors, US democracy was also born behind them. It is not enough, then, to reflexively call for more transparency in all circumstances. The right amount is debatable, even for those, like Madison, who understand its utility.

What we need is to develop an heuristic for assessing the proper balance between opacity and transparency. To do so we must ask, why do we seek transparency in the first instance? Not for its own sake. Without need, transparency is little more than voyeurism. Rather, its ground is oversight--it enables us to limit the executive exercise of authority. Paradoxically, however, it also allows us to empower the executive; if we enhance transparency appropriately, we can also comfortably expand governmental authority, confident that our review of the use of that authority can prevent abuse. While accommodating the necessity of granting greater authority to the executive branch, we must also demand that the executive accept greater review of its activities.

In the post-September 11 world, the form of new oversight should vary depending upon the extent to which transparency and opacity are necessary to the new executive power. Consider, as an example, the case cited by Florini--legislation that exempts information supplied by businesses regarding potential terrorist attack risks from public disclosure. To be sure, there is a potential for abuse of that exemption, but surely equally, supplying this information to the government is vital to assure the protection of critical infrastructure. …