Secrecy News

Making Government Accountability Work

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly recognize a “public right to know.” But without reliable public access to government information, many features of constitutional government would not make sense. Citizens would not be able to evaluate the performance of their elected officials. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press would be impoverished. Americans’ ability to hold their government accountable for its actions would be neutered.

The conditions that make government accountability possible and meaningful are the subject of the new book Reclaiming Accountability by Heidi Kitrosser (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

The author introduces the term “substantive accountability,” which she contrasts with mere “formal accountability.” While formal accountability includes such things as the right to vote, substantive accountability requires that people must “have multiple opportunities to discover information relevant to their votes….”

This may seem obvious, but the trappings of formal accountability are often unsupported by the information that is needed to provide the substance of accountability, especially in matters of national security.

Kitrosser, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, shows that the principles of substantive accountability are deeply rooted in the text, structure and history of the Constitution. She uses those principles to provide a framework for evaluating contemporary assertions of presidential power over information, including executive privilege, state secrets, secret law, and prosecutions of unauthorized disclosures.

It cannot be the case, for example, that unauthorized disclosures of classification information are categorically prohibited by law and also that the President has discretion to classify information as he sees fit. If that were so, she explains, then the President would have unbounded authority to criminalize disclosure of information at will, and the classification system would have swallowed the First Amendment. As she writes: “The First Amendment’s promise would be empty indeed if its protections did not extend to information that the president wishes to keep secret.”

Kitrosser reviews the relevant case law to find openings and lines of argument that could be used to bolster the case for substantive accountability. She notes that Supreme Court rulings over the years “contain the seeds of an affirmative case for strongly protecting classified speakers.” In a 1940 ruling in Thornhill v. Alabama, for example, the Court declared that “The freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed by the Constitution embraces at the least the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully all matters of public concern without previous restraint or fear of subsequent punishment.”

There is, of course, an opposing school of thought which posits a largely unconstrained presidential authority over government information. Moreover, this presidentialist view has been on “an upward historical trajectory” in recent decades. Leak investigations and prosecutions have risen markedly, and so have assertions of the state secrets privilege. Secret law blossomed after 9/11. The very term “executive privilege” is a modern formulation that only dates back to 1958 (as noted by Mark Rozell).

One of the deeply satisfying features of Kitrosser’s book (which is a work of scholarship, not a polemic) is her scrupulous and nuanced presentation of the presidential supremacist perspective. Her purpose is not to ridicule its weakest arguments, but to engage its strongest ones. To that end, she traces its origins and development, and its various shades of interpretation. She goes on to explain where and how substantive accountability is incompatible with presidential supremacy, and she argues that the supremacist viewpoint misreads constitutional history and is internally inconsistent.

The book adds analytical rigor and insight to current debates over secrecy and accountability, which it ultimately aims to inspire and inform.

“We can seek to harness and support those aspects of American law, politics, and culture that advance substantive accountability,” she writes.

“Reclaiming accountability is no single act. From internal challenges or external leaks by civil servants, to journalistic inquiries and reports, to congressional oversight, to FOIA requests, accountability is claimed and reclaimed every day by countless actors in myriad ways.”