Several events in recent months bring back to the forefront the perennial assertion that, on grounds of both efficacy and ethics, the public's "right to know" is the best guide to good government and good institutions. Indeed, the Obama administration prominently displays on the White House's Web site a presidential memorandum: "MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES
"SUBJECT: Transparency and Open Government
"My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."
Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis gave impetus to this reasonable proposition with his observation that "sunlight (on public policy matters) is the best disinfectant" against corruption. Perhaps ironically, Brandeis also is credited with being the father of the constitutional "right of privacy" as it applies to individuals.
But, of course, some publicly held information should not be disclosed (e.g., the military's nuclear secrets), while some private information should be open to public view (e.g., evidence of individuals' criminal conduct).
While it may be justified for the government to have -- as a general default -- policy regarding the public's right to have routine information disclosed (see the Freedom of Information Act), in any particular factual setting, the principle of "right to know," or "transparency," is not much of a guide.
Consider four recent controversial events:
1. The advanced announcement of the bank "stress tests" by the Treasury Department.
2. The non-disclosure at the time of the Henry Paulson/Ben Bernanke "threat" to fire Bank of America's CEO, Ken Lewis, if he didn't complete Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch.
3. The release of the terrorist interrogation memorandums.
4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's public disclosure that the U.S. government considers the possible fall of Pakistan's government to the Taliban as a "mortal threat" to the U.S.
Each of those disclosure/non-disclosure decisions has been sharply contested. And in none of them is the general principle of transparency a useful guide.
Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.
In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.