ASNE Survey: By Big Margin, Public Says Feds Are Too Secretive

By: E&P Staff

Nearly seven of ten Americans believe the federal government is too secretive — to the point that 28% think there own mail and phones may be tapped, according to a survey released Wednesday ahead of Sunshine Week.

Just 7% of the 1,008 adults surveyed believe the federal government is “very open,” while 69% say it is either “somewhat secretive” or “very secretive.”

The survey was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) for national Sunshine Week, March 11-17. It was conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Public concern about government secrecy is on the rise, the survey indicates. Last year, a similar poll found that 33% believed Washington was at least somewhat open, while 62% thought the federal government was somewhat or very secretive.

By contrast, Americans by big majorities believe their local and state governments are mostly transparent in their actions and record-keeping.

“That is an accurate assessment and it’s absolutely true,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. “By and large, state open-records laws are more progressive and user-friendly than anything we are seeing on the federal level these days.”

The poll also unearthed rising concern about privacy. By a 2-1 margin, Americans want the FBI and other federal agencies to get a judge’s permission before tapping phones or opening mail, even in terrorism cases.

Some 28% of respondents said it is either very likely or somewhat likely that their own mail and telephone calls have been intercepted.

“The pendulum has finally started to swing back,” said Dalglish. “People are coming to realize that secrecy is rampant and our civil liberties have been messed with.”

On the other hand, that concern is not translating into strong support for press coverage of government.

Americans are evenly divided — 46% for, and 45% against — on the propriety of press reports that the National Security Agency had been monitoring overseas telephone calls without court permission.

A substantial minority of respondents also disapproved of reporting on the CIA use of electric shock and “water boarding” during interrogations (43%); of CIA operation of secret prisons (41%); and of the disclosure of the identities of “enemy combatants” held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

David Westphal, Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers and co-chairman of ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee, called the poll ?quite disturbing news.?

“When only 25 percent of the people consider theirs is an open government, that’s a real problem in a democracy,? he said.

The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative by ASNE to encourage coverage and public discussion about the importance of open government and freedom of information. The third Sunshine Week kicks off Sunday. It is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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