Stevenson: Secrecy defeats accountability

The first shots in the Revolutionary War were fired in April 1775 when the British raided Concord, Massachusetts, where they suspected that the Americans were collecting military supplies.  By July 1776, the colonists gathered their thoughts and published a Declaration of Independence from the British Crown.  That took a lot of courage.  Great Britain was a commercial empire that ruled its domain at gun point.  Yet, declaring independence was the easy part.

Commentary by Jack Stevenson

Commentary by
Jack Stevenson

The colonists organized their government as a confederation that deprived the central government of authority.  During the eight-year military struggle with the British, that arrangement proved nearly fatal to the new republic.  The central government couldn’t require citizens to serve as soldiers, couldn’t raise tax revenue, and couldn’t borrow money to fund the war.  Soldiers suffered in the bitter cold winter from hunger, insufficient clothing, and lack of shelter.

The Articles of Confederation deprived the central government of authority because there was widespread fear of concentrated power in the hands of a central government.  The only examples of centralized governmental authority were European hereditary monarchies and despots and tyrants in various countries.  But the Revolutionary War taught the American colonists that a country could neither defend itself nor thrive without an authoritative central government.  So, the Americans devised a new model, a constitutional government that separated and limited governmental powers among the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.  Very soon, they amended the constitution with a Bill of Rights to further protect citizens from their own government.

This insurance policy has worked reasonably well, but it hasn’t changed human nature.  Licensing the federal government to exercise the authority it needs while simultaneously preventing misuse of that authority is a never-ending challenge.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently selected a president of the United States, an act that was absurdly outside the constitutional authority of our federal government.  But the greatest current challenge to the proper regulation of federal government authority is secrecy.  Secrecy defeats accountability.  No human government functions, democratically, unless subjected to constant and rigorous accountability.  When the government gives its secrecy a Teflon coating by claiming that secrecy is required for national security, the well-being of American democracy is as severely challenged as at any previous time in our history.  The current federal administration has secretly conducted massive spying operations on all Americans while simultaneously treating revelations of what it is doing as a very serious crime.

Independence, whether that of an individual or a government, requires acceptance of responsibility.  The American colonists, after issuing the British an exit visa, accepted responsibility and designed a new government model.

Almost a century ago, the Wilson administration launched a horrific assault on Americans who opposed America’s voluntary entry into a European War.  The federal government countenanced ruthless vigilantes and prosecuted two thousand people for opposing American participation in the war.

During the 1970s, a senate committee headed by Senator Church investigated illegal secret operations conducted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  The illegal activities were directed at anyone or any organization that didn’t meet Hoover’s personal standards of good citizenship.  Hoover’s activities included various forms of spying, intimidation, harassment, attempted blackmail, and release of derogatory information to the news media.  The victims included women’s rights organizations, minorities, gay rights advocates, Cubans, students protesting the Vietnam War, and Albert Einstein.  The FBI tapped Einstein’s phone, read his mail, and searched his trash.

This century we have seen our federal government falsify information to justify the invasion of Iraq, torture prisoners, and render prisoners to obscure foreign sites where they could be secretly tortured—all of it far outside the standards of proud Americans.

If we want to continue to be independent, we must exercise responsibility for what our federal government does.

Jack Stevenson, now retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer. He retired from military service and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. Mr. Stevenson also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He currently reads history, follows issues important to Americans and writes commentary from his Florida home.

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  • trotsky

    Mr. Stevenson, that is an amazing essay, a good history outline and a very good warning against excessive government power. Awesome work! Please write again.

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