It is precisely because knowledge is power that government officials can sometimes be so reluctant to share it.
The silent infiltration of the COVID-19 virus into our communities is a pertinent example of this instinct to contain useful information, even though when it comes to public health everyone should be on a need-to-know basis. Journalists in the Herald-Tribune newsroom spent Sunday fruitlessly seeking to confirm the galloping rumor that a possibly infected patient was under quarantine at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. It was not until late Sunday night that Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a press release.
There is no good reason for such reticence and stonewalling, because rumor is always a greater hazard to public health than the truth can be. Nor would it be a violation of patient privacy to release more details about those “underlying health conditions” that appear to make a life-or-death difference in the outcomes of this infection.
American adults deserve to be trusted, as a rule, with the facts that drive the decisions of their elected officials. If not, why should we have any right to elect them? And trust works both ways: A government that stints on the release of public information eventually erodes its own ability to lead.
There are some legitimate circumstances under which officials are right to withhold facts from the public. But by far the most common motive for government secrecy is that telling the truth would make the government look bad.
This certainly seems to be the operational mode behind a coverup of Florida’s ongoing struggle against outside interference in its election process. As reported by the Tallahassee Democrat’s Jeffrey Schweers, and printed in Sunday’s Herald-Tribune, opacity about these hacking efforts was imposed from the top down. The state threatened to deny necessary federal funding to any county elections supervisor who did not sign a nondisclosure agreement — effectively hindering them in their duty to manage a process that cannot exist without accountability and transparency.
Schweers tells a tale of federal investigators swooping into Florida wearing a cloak of invisibility woven by the Department of Homeland Security. As state leaders were briefed and “cyber navigators” were trained to detect new assaults on the elections system, this idea of a hush-hush atmosphere was applied to anything and everything having to do with voting security.
“Elections supervisors had to sign the NDA to see what the cyber navigators discovered during their risk assessment, according to an email they received in July and obtained by USA TODAY Network-Florida,” Schweers wrote. “Two reminders went out in September to supervisors who still hadn’t signed the agreement.”
The uneven results of this suppression attempt are revealed by the wide discrepancies in elections supervisors’ responses to a straightforward public records request on what they knew before 2016 and how they have spent money to secure their systems. From the unredacted records that were provided, it does appear that our vote tabulation process is now safer than it was for the last presidential election.
But it remains to be seen whether the unnecessary insistence on concealing its previous vulnerabilities will do more harm than good.
The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board