Sales of George Orwell's 1984 are up these days, for good reason. Over half of Americans awoke on November 9 and asked themselves “How did this happen?” (Some of us have made it a routine to ask that question every morning since.) Finding no satisfactory answers in the news, we turn to the prophets of yore. And few so accurately predicted the era of “alternative facts” than Orwell, who had this to say: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
But for the truly paranoid, I recommend nonfiction for your daily apocalyptic musings. In 1955, Milton Mayer published They Thought they were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945. Having interviewed German citizens who experienced the rise and fall of Nazism, Mayer recorded the following answer to his question: “How did this happen?”
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.
We at MFIA are well accustomed to fighting the government’s invocation of “national security” as a justification for withholding information. The issue constantly comes up in FOIA cases, in which DOJ lawyers flout their powers of imagination when defending Exemption 1 withholdings (exempting information that “could be expected to cause damage to the national security” if disclosed). In such cases, we try to convince courts to reject the agencies’ “parade of horribles” that could follow if specific information were released. In addition to pointing out the absurdity of the agencies’ predictions, we argue that there is a greater principle at issue: the growing separation between the government and the governed. Sayeth Mayer:
This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.
As the executive branch continues to create secret law and overclassify information, a similar “process of government growing remoter” is occurring in America. When we win, we don’t just obtain a piece of information for our clients—we narrow the information gap, ever so slightly, between the government and the people. I am confident that, despite the Trump administration’s attempts to confuse and conceal—or rather, because of those blatant attacks on government transparency—we will have many more wins in the coming years.