Jack Landau's attempt to portray the emergence of "a pattern of censorship" (op-ed, Nov. 28) suggests that press organizations, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, are increasingly committed to lobbying for the personal and narrow interests of individual reporters, thereby forfeiting their self-proclaimed role as "surrogates of the American people." Landau's article is typical of the myriad efforts produced by media organizations over the past 30 years that emphasize the unarguable symbolic virtues of open government, but that ignore the attendant diminution of government effectiveness.
The legislative history of the Freedom of Information Act is replete with "war stories" similar in tone to Landau's chronology of censorship. Unfortunately, as in this case, close scrutiny often reveals either shallow reporting or deliberate misstatements.
For example, one vignette that was repeated throughout the 1950s and 1960s ridiculed the Defense Department for classifying its "bow and arrow" project, impugning the report to be a relic from the days of Davy Crockett. In fact, the report was prepared during World War II, as an assessment of the potential use of "silent, flashless weapons" in jungle warfare. It was classified properly originally and remained classified after the war simply because its declassification had not been sought. Upon request, it was immediately released to the public. Yet, long after its release, press spokesmen continued to cite the "bow and arrow" project as an example of the mindless censorship of the government.
Falling clearly within this ignoble tradition, Landau reports that the attorney general "decreed" that "information should be suppressed" under the Freedom of Information Act "if any technical argument can be found supporting the suppression." In fact, the attorney general's "decree" of May 1981 was merely a reversal of Carter administration policy that required agencies to go beyond the provisions of the FOIA and establish the demonstrable harm to government operations before litigating FOIA lawsuits. That policy, however, was primarily intended to relieve the backlog of FOIA lawsuits in the federal courts. Its repeal reflects a failure of that effort, not a "philosophy of content censorship and suppression of government information."
Furthermore, Landau's insistence on characterizing as "new secrecy" attempts to remedy the unanticipated consequences of the FOIA are misleading and irresponsible. Without commenting on the merits, the Justice Department's proposals to reform the FOIA are an attempt to equitably balance the principle of open government against important societal interests of individual privacy, corporate confidentiality and law enforcement efficiency. Those who claim that attempts to remedy undesired, unanticipated and dysfunctional developments in this area constitute "new secrecy" clearly misunderstand the public interest principle. After all, the framing of the Constitution was an attempt to secure the public interest by creating a government that could effectvely and legitimately respond to "the exigencies of the nation."
As has been the case throughout the 30-year struggle to define and refine the FOIA, strong advocates of open government continue to base their positions on rather simplistic notions of popular democracy that fail to consider its inherent limitations. With Martin Diamond it can be said that a man is not a better democrat, but only a foolish democrat if he ignores the real defects inherent in popular government. Landau not only ignores the defects, he exalts them.