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Transparency of government agencies is recognized as being crucial to citizen oversight of government in a democracy. When governments have kept information secret from the citizens, and told the citizens to trust that they know what they are doing and will make the right decision based on non-public information, it has often turned out badly. A notable example would be the George W. Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The U.S. Constitution attempts to provide some transparency in the legislative and judicial branches by providing that "Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same,"[1] that "a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time,"[2] and that "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial".[3]

Thomas Gordon writes, "Publick truths ought never to be kept secrets; and they who do it, are guilty of a solecism, and a contradiction: Every man ought to know what it concerns all to know. Now, nothing upon earth is of a more universal nature than government; and every private man upon earth has a concern in it, because in it is concerned, and nearly and immediately concerned, his virtue, his property, and the security of his person".[4]

Executive branch

The Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act attempt to provide some transparency in the executive branch. A citizen can request copies of government documents,[5] but there are many kinds that the government need not provide, such as secret national defense or foreign policy documents, internal personnel rules, trade secrets, certain inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters, personnel and medical files, law enforcement records, reports pertaining to regulation or supervision of financial institutions, and geological information concerning wells.[6] Agencies can deter FOIA requests by charging exorbitant amounts for search fees, or they can simply state that a search was conducted and did not turn up any documents relevant to the request. Such a statement does not indicate anything about how thorough the search was. The requester can appeal this, but it is difficult to prove that the government does not possess any documents pertaining to a certain matter unless the requester happens to have specific knowledge about the document in question.

Freedom of Information is under attack for being costly to agencies,[7] although it could be argued that the cost of not having effective citizen oversight of agencies is even higher, and that the cost of not privatizing the agencies and exposing them to competitive pressures (which would obviate the need for transparency) is positive exorbitant. In some cases, federal agencies simply destroy documents and do not respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner, perhaps most notably in the Securities and Exchange Commission.[8]

In some cases, the executive branch has invoked executive privilege as a reason not to disclose information. Barack Obama is generally regarded as having failed to fully follow through on his promises of transparency.[9] The Obama Administration has prosecuted a number of "whistleblowers" in the name of punishing security leaks.

Judicial branch

In the judicial branch, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 states, "Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom."[10] A major concern is that the secret identities of undercover agents and confidential informants could be compromised, although one way around this would be to shield those witnesses from view of the cameras and distort their voices. In any event, artists are free to sketch the likenesses of these witnesses and to photograph them outside the courthouse. Sometimes discovery documents include photographs of these witnesses anyway. It is questionable how "public" the proceedings are when transcripts are usually not prepared unless an appeal is filed. One might plausibly argue that the real reason for the ban on recording and broadcasting is to keep injustice in the federal courts from being shown to the world on TV and YouTube.


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