Openness and Secrecy

By: David D. Gries


Throughout their history, Americans have relied on free elections, Congressional hearings and investigations, speeches and appearances by executive branch officials, and an inquiring press to make good on the Founding Fathers’ promise of open government. Until the start of World War II, Congress and the executive branch openly debated most foreign affairs issues, and the press reported the results. Information about the small standing army was readily available both to Americans and to foreign representatives.

This system worked well until World War II brought the need to keep military plans and the capabilities of weapon systems from enemy eyes. Although Article I of the Constitution permitted Congress to withhold such records “as may in their judgment require Secrecy,” little of this occurred until the war started. As the war progressed and our national security was threatened, breakthroughs in jet-engine technology, radar, sonar, rocketry, and atomic weapons required special protection. Openness in operations of the legislative and executive branches, previously the guarantors of the Founding Fathers’ promise, was sharply curtailed.

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