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Why Do Americans Oppose the Release of Information?

Matt Negrin

Posted: Apr 26th 2009 5:53PM

Filed under: Politics, Boston University, Media

Matt Negin is now a contributor for The Cram, a student news arm of the newly launched To follow his future work, click here.

In a new Washington Post poll, most Americans approve of Barack Obama's performance during his first 100 days in office.

But although the Post led its Sunday story with that finding, another response in the survey about the recently released torture memos is considerably more newsworthy. Apparently, 44 percent of the public disapproves of Obama's decision to release secret documents from the Bush administration detailing the interrogation of terrorism suspects. Fifty-three percent approved.

That key question also revealed a deep partisan divide, with three-quarters of Democrats backing the disclosure of the memos and just as many Republicans opposing the hotly debated move.

Why does access to more information fall along a partisan split? I was just as perplexed last year when I covered the Roger Clemens steroids-in-baseball hearing on Capitol Hill, and Democrats on the government reform committee harshly interrogated The Rocket while their Republican counterparts defended him. (I still can't figure out why, and Clemens has not been recorded by the FEC for any GOP campaign donations.)

But when did the issue of releasing information -- albeit from the secretive Bush administration about the sensitive issue of torture -- begin to irk conservatives? Shouldn't the availability of information be heralded by all, whether it be documents implicating a Democratic governor of New York in a prostitution ring or sexual instant messages between a Republican congressman from Florida and his congressional pages?

Whether the new information about counter-terrorist interrogations during Bush's term justifies the use of waterboarding or exposes a lack of understanding about torture methods, the very fact that the public can debate the use of torture with more understanding is valuable. Public debate without appropriate information is just yelling or pandering (or cable-news filler).

For example, one nugget from the torture memos released April 16 includes information (some in a footnote) about how simulated drowning, or "waterboarding," was used 266 times on two suspects. This news raised questions of not only waterboarding's effectiveness, but its frequent use. Advocates and critics of waterboarding can now understand better the controversial topic they're debating.

Yet even after that news has been reported, 44 percent of the public (mostly Republican but not all) still think it was a bad idea for Obama to make those documents available to be read by anyone, according to the Post poll. The question was not a matter of defending or criticizing the use of torture; it was, "Obama has ordered the release of previously secret records of Bush administration policies on the interrogation of terrorism suspects. Do you support or oppose Obama's decision to release these records?" Out of everyone asked, 32 percent "strongly oppose" the president's move, and another 12 percent "somewhat oppose" it.

One of the arguments against the memos' release is that potential suspects now have a wider view into counter-terrorist methods. (Still, fake drowning is fake drowning, whether you know it's coming or not.) And then there's the idea that because terrorists are potentially very dangerous, maybe the public doesn't want to know what it takes to get information that could help authorities prevent an attack.

These points appear to be valid, but certainly not partisan; nobody on Capitol Hill wants to make it easier for terrorists to strike. What they should want is the most information available to adequately serve public discourse.

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