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Book Review: Blacked Out by Alasdair Roberts

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Alasdair Roberts, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Syracuse University. Blacked Out is a study of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and how the governments in various countries, though primarily the US, have dealt with the often-times problematic need to be accountable to the people, yet also maintain a level of secrecy to permit policymaking to occur.

At 336 pages you would be mistaken if you think this is a quick read. Although concise, it contains a huge amount of detail. The compendious footnotes would keep a researcher busy for some considerable time.

I found it fascinating; I can honestly say that I learned something on every page.

The first version of the FOIA was enacted in 1966. However, it was not until the Watergate scandal that the Freedom of Information march gained momentum. Alasdair Roberts does an excellent job of explaining how the government was forced to become more open to public scrutiny. A newer, cleaner government started to emerge, because of the accountability.

According to Blacked Out, this freedom of access came to a screeching halt with the arrival of the Bush administration. What I found curious when reading the book was that this change was not a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but was inherent in the very makeup of the government. 9/11 merely offered a plausible rationale to further the restrictive practices.

Blacked Out contains many case studies, and they all make for great reading. It was hard to know which to select in writing this review.

The author is critical of Donald Rumsfeld. Although many others were involved, there is compelling evidence that Rumsfeld was a key figure in restricting access to information not only to the outside world, but even to interested agencies within the government.
The Bush administration's reticence to share information may have been a catalyst in causing the Iraq war.

Roberts puts forward an interesting concept developed by another academic, Irving Janus, called “groupthink”. This is where you limit the access to information to a small group of people. That group becomes absorbed with the data and fails to consider alternatives.

The Iraq war came about based on a number of factors that were later found to be untrue. A prime example was the question of weapons of mass destruction. If a wider audience had access to the scientific and intelligence information, it is likely that this claim would have been found to be false before the war started. Even more disturbing was that the various organs of government were not even communicating with each other. This is a great example of where the principles of a FOIA philosophy could have changed a very serious situation.

Roberts writes from a very interesting position, the book is well-balanced, explaining both sides of the argument. This is most certainly a work from academia, and there always seems to be a barrier preventing this type of book from hitting the mainstream reader. But this is a book that deserves to cross that line.

If you are concerned about transparency in government, personal freedoms, and in many ways personal privacy, this is a book that you should put on your reading list. There is a lot of great quotable material in Blacked Out, but my absolute favorite is the ending. I think it sums up the entire issue.

“Do we have a right to information? Certainly. But we also have a responsibility to act on it.”

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