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Blacked Out
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  • Page extent: 336 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.66 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 323.445
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: n/a
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Government information
    • Freedom of information
    • Secrecy

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521858700 | ISBN-10: 0521858704)

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$46.99 (P)


In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), giving the public the right to government documents. This “right to know” has been used over four decades to challenge overreaching Presidents and secretive government agencies. FOIA has also become a model for other nations, spawning similar laws in sixty other countries. Nonetheless, the struggle for openness is far from over. This book describes the tactics that politicians and bureaucrats around the world have used to preserve government secrecy. It explains how profound changes in the structure of government – privatization of public services, the rise of powerful international organizations, the growth of tightly knit networks of security agencies – are complicating campaigns for openness. The complex effects of new information technologies – sometimes enhancing openness, sometimes creating new barriers to transparency – are also described. Blacked Out provides an invaluable overview of the challenges confronting the new global movement for open government.

Alasdair Roberts is an associate professor of public administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is also Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Constitution Unit, University College London. He received a law degree from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University. His research focuses on two areas: public sector restructuring and transparency in government. His web address is



Alasdair Roberts
The Maxwell School of Syracuse University

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
Information on this title:

© Alasdair Roberts 2006

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2006

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13 978-0-521-85870-0 hardback
ISBN-10 0-521-85870-4 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for
the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or
third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication
and does not guarantee that any content on such
Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

   The eye of the public makes the statesman virtuous. The multitude of the audience multiplies for disintegrity the chances of detection.

Jeremy Bentham, 1785

   Our country has forgotten how to keep a secret.

Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, 2004


Acknowledgements page ix
1   The Glass Case 1
2   Secrecy and Security 27
3   Regime Change 51
4   Message Discipline 82
5   Soft States 107
6   Opaque Networks 127
7   The Corporate Veil 150
8   Remote Control 171
9   Liquid Paper 199
10   The End of the Story? 231
Notes 239
Index 303


This is a book about transparency, so let me make a full disclosure of the debts I owe to the people and organizations who have helped to bring it to fruition.

   I am Canadian, and began using Canada’s Access to Information Act when I started teaching at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in 1989. (My first request, for a copy of the instruction manual given to newly appointed Canadian cabinet ministers, was denied in full.) But I did not begin conducting research on the subject until 1997, when the Canadian Newspaper Association asked me to write a survey on the state of Canada’s federal and provincial disclosure laws. It has been a pleasure to work over the last eight years with the CNA and its President Anne Kothawala, an articulate proponent of the right to information in Canada.

   In 1999, a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars allowed me to contrast Canadian experience with the United States’ track record under its older Freedom of Information Act. I also had the privilege of working with Laura Neuman and other staff at the Carter Center, learning more about efforts to improve transparency in the Caribbean and Latin America.

   In 2000, the Open Society Institute awarded a fellowship that provided a wonderful opportunity to travel and study struggles over openness in other countries. In 2003 the Open Society Justice Initiative, an operational program of the Institute, provided support for an international workshop on national security and open government that was organized by the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, a research center of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, which I currently direct. I have benefited on many occasions from conversations with Helen Darbishire, Senior Program Manager of the Justice Initiative’s Freedom of Information and Expression Program.

   I have also been honored to work with the ten other members of the Transparency Task Force, an international committee of scholars and activists established in 2002 by Professor Joseph Stiglitz’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue, to improve understanding of transparency as a tool for advancing human rights and economic development. Chaired by Shekhar Singh and Ann Florini, the Task Force includes Tom Blanton, Richard Calland, Jamie Horsley, Laura Neuman, Ayo Obe, Elena Petkova, Vivek Ramkumar, Ivan Szekely, and Hanhua Zhou.

   The last decade has witnessed the emergence of a remarkable international community of scholars, advocates, and public servants interested in open government. The members of this group correspond regularly and rely on each other for advice and support in their campaigns for transparency. The extent to which this network has grown over a few short years – in breadth, in depth of interconnectedness, and in sophistication of dialogue – has been extraordinary. I have learned a great deal from the members of this community. I am particularly indebted to David Banisar, who has for several years done an extraordinary job of tracking international developments in this field; to Toby Mendel, Law Programme Director of ARTICLE 19; and to David Goldberg, for his manuscript comments.

   I am also grateful for the assistance of the staff of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Bethany Walawender and Kelley Coleman, and the support of six graduate assistants who have worked with me while completing their master’s degrees in public administration at the Maxwell School: Lillian Foo, Sarah Holsen, Kevin Lo, Michael N’dolo, Katherine Younker, and Andrea Stenhoff. Thanks are due as well to John Berger, Senior Editor at Cambridge University Press, for his enthusiasm and advice.

   Over the years, I have filed hundreds of requests for information, using disclosure laws in several countries. In most cases, these requests have been handled by disclosure officers who have done their best to honor the spirit of the law. It is a difficult job, which often requires career public servants to mediate between dissatisfied citizens and balky higher-level officials. I’m indebted to this group of civil servants, as well as to the investigators who have dealt with my complaints and appeals, for their professionalism and patience with sometimes complex requests.

   Finally, I must thank my parents, James and Nancy Roberts, who have passed down their own love of knowledge and a measured skepticism of authority. My wife, Sandra, has listened patiently to many stories on arcane points of law; and my children, John and Constance, now know what I have been doing down in our basement all these months.

The massive glass cupola of the renovated German Parliament, opened in 1999. The British architect Norman Foster said that he intended the Parliament to be “transparent, its activities on view.” The cupola contains an observation platform “allowing the people to ascend above the heads of their political representatives.” Photograph by Hendrik Brixius.

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