Once upon a time . . . . It almost seems like a fantasy.
A sitting president spoke out against government secrecy. It was John F. Kennedy, and it was April 1961. Kennedy was speaking before a meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
Here’s part of what he said:
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
Much of Kennedy’s speech that night was about the dangers that America and the free world faced — the danger of communism and its threat to our freedoms. With very few changes, the speech could have been delivered last week, and it would have sounded most relevant.
Undoubtedly, neither Kennedy nor his administration lived up to the ideas that he expressed in this speech.
But unlike today’s leaders, Kennedy did not believe in closing off the government to its people. He did not believe in limiting civil liberties. Rather, he sought to expand them, believing that was the best way to fight our enemies.
Particularly by those in power today.
(Posted on July12, 2006).
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