Doug Clifton: Fighting government secrecy takes patience, money

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Hypothetically, what would you think if a government agency announced it needed $45 million to replace an 8-year-old building that was suffering from serious structural problems?

If you’re anything like me, you’d want to know a bit more. Who had the contract to build the place? How much did it cost? How bad was the work? Stuff like that.

What would you think if your request for that basic information was denied? You wouldn’t be out of line if you began to suspect the worst. It’s not untoward to think that the harder an agency works to shield information, the more likely it is that it will be embarrassed by its disclosure.

What if that hypothetical agency withheld the information for five years and forced you to file a lawsuit to obtain it?

Unfortunately, my hypothetical isn’t hypothetical at all. It is very real and is playing out in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. The building in question is Camp Seven in Guantanamo, Cuba, where the accused 9/11 conspirators have been locked away for close to 10 years.

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg first asked for that seemingly benign information in a 2009 Freedom of Information Act request. After some deliberation, the request was denied. Rosenberg, who has covered Guantanamo since it opened, filed suit.

Last week the Justice Department responded that it had found just one document that would provide the requested information and that document was classified. Why? Because it contained details of internal deliberations and the names of officials who were entitled to their privacy.

I hate to resort to the overused adjective Kafkaesque, but it seems no more apt one comes to mind in describing the Justice Department’s further explanation:

There are other reasons for withholding, but we can’t tell you what they are. They’re secret.

So it comes down this: Protecting internal deliberations, the privacy of bureaucrats and something secret.

Those internal deliberations, it seems to me, are central to discovering what exactly is going on here. And the privacy of bureaucrats? How can we be sure that Joe the government contract evaluator isn’t the brother-in-law of John the contractor?

It is inconceivable that the government can find only one document pertaining to construction of a high security prison facility. It’s beyond inconceivable, it’s laughable.

But those kinds of laughable excuses are all too typical. For anyone in the government accountability fray, foot-dragging and withholding information are not new. For far too many government officials – local, state or federal – the answer is “no” even before the question is asked.

The Federal FOIA and the Florida Sunshine laws sound good and, in the long run, work. But they are weakest in the cases that matter most because those are the ones with the most at stake and that government fights hardest to keep out of the public eye. That resistance, by the way, is paid for with your money.

Historically, the press has waged the fight for openness in government. Yet in their diminished financial state, news organizations are less and less capable of costly legal battles. This one is certainly worth fighting.  Rosenberg and The Herald deserve our thanks.

But what of the countless other fights that soak up years and dollars? Who will fight those? There’s no shortage of passion for the cause, it’s patience and money that’s in short supply.

Until governments start living up to both the spirit and letter of the open-government laws, we’ll have to rely on the occasional newspaper-funded challenge and the pro bono work of public interest lawyers.

That’s a pretty thin reed on which to depend, but it’s all we have. Cherish it.

Doug Clifton is the former editor of The Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Fort Lauderdale.

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