Power of the black mark redaction


In mid-February, the FBI posted nearly 3,600 pages of information gathered about Senator Ted Stevens in over 50 years of Stevens’ service to the State of Alaska. Much of the material was already public source available elsewhere, such as news clippings. I’ve not spent a great deal of time with the files, but most engaging to me is the older material that provides glimpses into the political climate in the era surrounding Alaska’s early statehood. Aside from interesting items of a historical nature, Stevens’ released FBI files, complete with obligatory redactions, turned out to be a nonstory, but it did get me thinking about the thorny and very current issue of the FOIA, the United States’ Freedom of Information Act, and suspicion of government secrecy. Although the FBI often releases posthumously the files of well-known public figures, the release of Stevens’ files was the result of a FOIA request.

The Freedom of Information Act became a federal law in 1966, establishing the public’s right to information in the records of public agencies. Anyone may file a FOIA request to any federal agency entity or branch. The process can be lengthy, and there are several exemptions to FOIA by which a request can be denied, such as items containing national security information, the right to personal privacy, or confidential business information. In the early application of FOIA, resistance from government bureacrats often took the form of foot-dragging in supplying requested information, and before the practice of redaction became standard, access could be denied to material containing one restricted item in a document that otherwise would be made available. Changing political climates influence the secrecy/openness power struggle. A shift in public perception of government occurred in the 1930s, amid changes in the role of federal agencies under the Roosevelt administration. Agency bureacrats realized more power in crafting and administering public policy through Depression-era New Deal programs such as the Citizens Civilian Corps (CCC), the Securities and Exchange Commision (SEC), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Fears of a too-powerful government grew among some in the constituency; a theme that continues today. The underpinnings of the 1966 FOIA began in the 1930s with journalism professor Harold Cross, a severe critic of what he believed was an overreach of power by President Roosevelt. The Cold War chilled progress toward a more transparent government under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1950, as legal counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Cross proposed a new law addressing the people’s “right to know “ and access to government records that became the basis for the first iteration of FOIA. The Watergate scandal, leading to President Nixon’s impeachment, impacted the public’s perception of transparency standards in government, and in 1974, Congress passed amendments to the original FOIA bill, loosening restrictions. Exploring the culture of government secrecy versus public perception, cultural anthropologist Michael Powell posted an essay in the Huffington Post in December 2010, Shadow Elite: WikiLeaks, FOIA and the Cultural Life of Government Secrecy. Powell observes that the custom of redaction on FOIA requests began as one of the 1974 FOIA amendments, with the purpose of allowing release of more records while also protecting privacy. Powell points out the irony that black-marker redactions soon became an icon for cover-up, a symbol for unchecked government power in the public imagination. Redaction functions as a red flag, empowering people, stimulating questions and raising awareness about legitimate uses of power and possible misuse. Julian Assange, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, dramatically entered the transparency/secrecy power play recently with his outing of classified diplomatic documents, ostensibly in the spirit of total governmental openness. lt can be argued that the threat of total transparency may keep sensitive records from being created at all. Whether or not WikiLeaks’ document dumps will usher in a new transparency in government and a new power redistribution, or create a reinvigorated climate of secrecy remains to be seen.

The struggle to find a balance between transparency and secrecy should not stop. I agree with Powell: “Black marker redaction doesn’t stop communication. It is an invitation for suspicion, skepticism and paranoid interpretation. The word may be gone, but a form and trace remains. We become aware that we cannot know something that we want to know–and that gets us wanting to know why we can’t know. And this is actually a very healthy kind of paranoia for a democratic society to have.”