In the fight against terrorism, government often must operate in secrecy. But the Bush administration has cast the veil of secrecy far beyond the battle lines and deep into the nation's justice system. It has claimed the power to hold deportation hearings in total secrecy anytime a case might involve national security.
As a federal appeals court ruled Aug. 26, such blanket secrecy is unnecessary and unconstitutional. If the government wants to exclude any public oversight of a proceeding, the request should, as the appeals court indicated, be handled case by case.
Justice that is dispensed in secret can easily produce injustice. That's particularly true in deportation cases. Detainees have no right to counsel if they can't afford it. The government has almost unfettered power to decide which foreign visitors may come in and which may stay. In deportation cases, the court noted, ''the press and the public serve as perhaps the only check on abusive government practices.''
Closing deportation hearings is a case where the Bush administration's penchant for operating in secrecy went too far. In the case before the court, the government admitted the detainee's three previous hearings produced no information that threatened national security or the safety of the American people. The detainee and his attorney were free to speak in public about the case. If sensitive information was involved, the government could have sought a gag order. It didn't. The automatic secrecy was a knee-jerk reaction rather than a measured judgment of how to balance security needs with the public's right to know.
Indeed, the court wondered whether the Bush administration's enthusiasm for secrecy knew any bounds. ''There seems to be no limit to the Government's argument,'' the court said. ''The Government could operate in virtual secrecy in all matters dealing, even remotely, with 'national security,' resulting in a wholesale suspension of First Amendment rights.''
Being able to operate in secrecy makes life easier for the government. But as the court noted, ''democracies die behind closed doors.'' Without reasonable limits, like those set in the appeals court ruling, government secrecy destroys the very freedom and democracy the government is supposedly trying to protect.
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