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Arien Mack, Editor

How do the US government and other political and cultural institutions restrict, facilitate, or otherwise affect the flow of information? What limits safeguard our democracy and what limits erode it?

While free access to knowledge and information is the bedrock of all democratic societies, no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential, and what must remain secret. The tensions among these competing ends are ever present and continuously raise questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safeguard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?


For as long as rulers have ruled, they have tried to monopolize and control information. The institution of secrecy is as old as the state. But as new media for communication have appeared, it has become more difficult to control the flow of information, just as the rise of democracy as an ideal has made it harder to justify the institution of secrecy.

In the "national security" area of the government--the White House, the Departments of State and Defense, the armed services and the "intelligence community," along with their contractors--there is less whistleblowing than in other departments of the executive branch or in private corporations. This despite the frequency of misguided practices and policies within these particular agencies that are both more well concealed and more catastrophic than elsewhere, and thus even more needful of unauthorized exposure.

Nothing in the world makes my blood boil faster than the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I have been pounding my head against this law for over 20 years and I cannot count the number of times government officials have looked me in the eye, given me a little smile, and said, "Well, you can always file a Freedom of Information Act request." They know when they say those words that they are condemning me to Siberia, that they have bought themselves months if not years of delay and obstruction.

If Americans have to select a single symbol of their country's military might, they would do well to choose the fighter jet--a carefully constructed instrument of destruction, simultaneously powerful and nimble, stealthy and loud. This essay begins with a hunch--that if American culture illuminates the social significance of a fighter jet, then learning a little about jet propulsion might reveal something about the political culture of the nation the fighter jet has come to symbolize.

One of the difficulties in discussing the notion that it is the media that limits our idea of politics is that we all have an inherent resistance to believing that our own understanding of the political world is artificially limited. Most of us are willing to talk about political propaganda and the way in which political opinions are manipulated as long as that means somebody else's opinions.

As a nation, we seem to be of two minds about secrecy. We know that government secrecy is incompatible with democratic decision-making in obvious ways. By definition, secrecy limits access to official information, thereby impeding public participation in the deliberative process and inhibiting or preventing the accountability of government officials for their actions.


The papers in this section are devoted to arguments for and against limits on knowledge in a democracy. They are all concerned, in one way or another, with questions of privacy; of the transparency (or lack of it) of powerful institutions and consequential decision procedures; of the costs and demands of national security--questions that are very much at the heart of this volume and the conference on which it is based."

Milton makes explicit a presupposition Mill takes for granted. The encounter, in which Truth and Falsehood grapple, must be fair and open. Replacing the metaphor with more literal language: public discusion of controversial issues must occur in such a fashion that those who make the final assessment of which if any, of the rival opinions is correct, must be able to do so on the basis of the evidential support accruing to each.

Over the last decade, many of the legal disputes that have arisen in the context of national security have concerned information--the withholding of it, the suppression of it, the collection of it, or the safeguarding of it. Frequently, these disputes have involved an argument known as the "mosaic" theory. The theory is straightforward: seemingly insignificant information may become significant when combined with other information.

Within civil libertarian discourse, it is commonly held that there is an inverse relationship between government secrecy and the privacy of individual citizens. According to this inverse-relationship narrative, secrecy enables and perpetuates privacy invasion by shielding government prying from public scrutiny.


On the question before us--are there conditions that call for limiting knowledge in a democracy?--principles of unfettered scientific inquiry and of a free press were more than a half-century ago challenge by the restrictive "need-to-know" policies of the security state.

The discovery that cases of paralytic polio in 1955 were caused by a single manufacturer of Salk vaccine; the linkage of toxic shock syndrome to tampons in 1979; the identification of the sentinel cases of AIDS on the East and West Coasts in the early 1980s; the recognition of West Nile virus, SARS, and avian flu at the turn of the twenty-first century: all were the result of surveillance systems, through which alert and troubled physicians could communicate with public health officials."


Who deserves to know what? What are the mechanisms for liming knowledge in the United States today? When does the public have a right to know?

Necessarily schematic, my aim here is to follow the long-term history of secrets over the last 100 years, using the debates and cases that encircled them to understand better the governing principles of what information had to be hidden. What dangers did each period identify among that which should be secret? What were the properties and assumed power of these secrets?

At a panel discussion a few months ago at an American Bar Association (ABA) conference, I was seated on a panel alongside Steward Baker, a longtime intelligence lawyer with the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Steward and I held different views on the value of transparency in government, particularly on matters of national security.

In this article I describe the role of technology and its use in limiting access to knowledge during four phases of development of the Internet. The possibilities associated with how people are using technology to strengthen democracies are the world make up an equally important part of the story.

We can't know everything; in fact, compared to the vast expanses of our ignorance, we can't really know very much. So the problem of "limiting knowledge" is not just one of the conflicts between efforts to make knowledge available and efforts to keep knowledge locked up. There is also the often invisible problem of how we decide what it is we are going to try to know, and what, as a consequence, we decide, even if by benign neglect, we are going to know.


A conversation between Galison, Navasky, Orekes, Romero, Neier centered around the theme of limiting knowledge.


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