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An Interview with Alasdair Roberts, Author of Blacked Out

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Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Alasdair Roberts about his new book Blacked Out, winner of the 2006 Louis Brownlow Award.

In this information age, transparency, or lack thereof, within government is a subject that we should all be aware of. By law the government of the U.S. is obliged to share the information they have with any interested party, subject to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA). Of course if you own the chicken coop, you get to decide how, and by whom, the chicken coop is guarded and that is not always a good thing. Blacked Out explores both the history and the current state of the government's openness and public accountability.

Following are some excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for length, and any errors are entirely mine.

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed your book, it was very thought-provoking. I learned many things that I did not know before. That said, it is not a light read.

Agreed, this is an academic press book. There is a tension between academic and trade presses. With a trade press book you are expected to have a punch line. Some subjects do not have a punch line, they only have information.

Is it possible to create a crossover book, one that appeals to both camps? I do believe yours is very close?

Very few academics have achieved this. The requirements are so different; academic books require extensive research notes, so that students can learn. A trade press book aims more at entertainment.

I have recently reviewed several non-fiction books about fairly serious issues. One in particular springs to mind, a short book about the changes in everyday life that the Supreme Court has brought about. This is another fine example of an important subject that the man in the street knows little about. How does an author of an academic book get it in front of the general public?

If the book is well written, it is possible for it to gain popularity through word of mouth, but it is a rare event.

The Freedom of Information Act is clearly a subject that you know very well. How long did the book take to put together? You first got involved in the subject in 1997, when did the book start to gel?

Yes it was 1997 that I first became involved. Blacked Out started to evolve in 2000, and in the fall of 2004 I started to actually commit it to paper.

Although it is a complex subject and maybe a little outside of the regular reader's vista, it is such a compelling subject. Have sales of the book been up to expectations?

Bear in mind that the academic presses work on a different scale. In that context, yes, the book has sold very well. Library Journal said it was the #6 book in Law and Politics during the last academic year, even though it was just published in February. It won the National Academy of Public Administration’s Brownlow Book Award in November. Links to this can be found on my website.

I thought that the position you took as author was interesting — for the most part you argue both sides of the case. Do you sit on the fence in reality?

Well, I wouldn’t call it sitting on the fence, I am an advocate of access to information, but I also believe in the need for control, to allow the administration to operate.

In the first part of the book you are pretty critical of the Bush administration, and Rumsfeld in particular. Do you feel that the need for secrecy is driven by individuals or is it a mindset (I think you use the term groupthink) of the whole administration?

It is not just the administration, there are many other factors involved. It is also the same in Canada; the Liberals and Tories think the same way.

The public interest in FOI was a direct result of Watergate. And for years after the government did become more transparent. The events of 9/11 provided the ‘evidence of the need to be secretive’, yet your position is that 9/11 merely added the fuel to drive the thrust to secrecy. What were the early signs that Bush was headed in that direction?

Among other things, events that preceded 9/11 such as the Energy Task Force and Presidential Records Act debates.

I recently reviewed a book by Larry Hancock, he is a JFK researcher. I asked him about his thoughts on the FOIA; he said, “It takes far too long to obtain anything, by the time you get access to the primary information, any potential witness has forgotten or even worse died”. Is this your opinion?

The US federal FOIA has one big weakness that has nothing to do with Bush: no Information Commissioner. If you want quick processing, you have to go to court.

There is a need for transparency, there is also a need for secrecy in order for an administration to be able to function (that’s almost a quote from you). Is there a happy medium?

Yes, there needs to be a legal regime, one that provides reasonable access, based on reasonable reason for access.

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