The concept of the ‘official secret’ is the specific invention of bureaucracy,” Max Weber wrote, “and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy.” Democratic politics requires a public informed about government decisions, policies, and actions; yet government officials everywhere typically “keep their knowledge and intentions secret,” and thereby avoid criticism and hinder opposition. I ought to know; I’ve been in court for a decade, trying to get the FBI to release its secret files on John Lennon.
American democracy has not been powerless before the practice of government secrecy. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed by Congress in 1966; it requires officials to make public the information in their files to “any person” who requests it—unless that information falls into a small number of exempted categories, including “national security.” The FOIA created a notable institution in the history of bureaucracy: a set of rules and procedures, officials and offices, dedicated not to the collection and maintenance of secrets, but rather to their release to the public. Journalists, scholars, and activists have used the FOIA to expose officials’ misconduct and lying, including the FBI’s illegal efforts to harass, intimidate, disrupt, and otherwise interfere with lawful political actions—like John Lennon’s singing “Give Peace a Chance.” But twelve years of Republican rule deeply eroded freedom of information. My fight for the Lennon files provides an illuminating case study....
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