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By KEN PAULSON
First Amendment Center
Governments like to keep things secret. To be fair, some government officials see the benefit of the free flow of information, but governments reflexively tend to keep things from public view, particularly if the information may raise questions about government conduct.
Of course, our guarantees of freedom of speech and press were instituted in part to keep an eye on people in power. If we’re to assess effectively how well our public servants are doing their jobs, we need access to information.
This week a federal judge ruled that a volume of the CIA’s history of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion could remain under wraps. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler embraced a technicality, accepting the CIA’s argument that the volume was merely a draft and had not gone through a review process.
It’s an unfortunate decision because it keeps Americans from seeing an internal assessment of a badly run U.S. government operation that had the potential to lead this nation into war. The CIA, in defending its secrecy, described the book as “a polemic of recriminations against CIA officers who later criticized the operation.”
In simple terms, this is a book in which CIA officers detail what they saw as inept work by the agency. This is not about academic purity or process; this is about being willing to deprive the U.S. public of information it paid for through tax dollars just to avoid embarrassment to the CIA.
The CIA’s adamancy is stunning in part because the Bay of Pigs operation occurred in 1961, more than 50 years ago. Anyone mentioned in the history is either gone or well into retirement, including Fidel Castro.
The CIA takes the position that the document might be confusing to the public and contains inaccurate information. To the extent that’s true, it’s easily remedied with a foreword providing context, including the circumstances under which it was prepared.
President Barack Obama has promised greater transparency from government agencies and there’s no justification for continuing to hide a half-century-old volume from the public. The CIA won in a federal courtroom this week — and the American people lost.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer/First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.