As James Madison said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Although Nixon’s grand jury testimony in the Watergate case produced no real breakthroughs in our understanding of his involvement, it is still important to have access to these documents.
Stanley Kutler, the historian who requested the documents, recognized this. “The grand jury after that testimony had a chance to sit and indict but they did not…so I don’t expect it to be that important,” he said to the AP, adding that it was another victory for transparency in public life.
Nixon, of course, would have been furious. He believed more than anything that he should be able to keep his secrets, and that being president gave him the power to do that. There is no way that when he was giving his testimony he thought there was even the slightest chance that what he said would come to light, but even with that assumed protection, he didn’t let his guard down and tell the truth.
The kind of openness that the release of these documents represents is a vital part of our democracy. If Nixon had been forced to tell the truth about the bombing of Cambodia from the outset, the war in Vietnam would have had a completely different outcome. There are many stories like this in American history. Allowing for public discourse on government action can make politicians think about their decisions in a new light. The only way this can happen, however, is if we know what the government, especially the executive branch, is doing.
James Madison was an early champion of this kind of transparency. Today, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) release all kinds of government documents to those willing to read them and look for valuable information. Every president can give new directives about how to interpret and enforce this law, as what documents are released has a direct impact on how the public views a president. Under President George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended a very strict interpretation on what documents should be released. If one of the exceptions to FOIA applied, he wanted executive agencies to use it, even if releasing the documents wouldn’t harm any government operations.
When President Obama took office, he pledged more transparency from these agencies. The implementation of this, however, has seen limited results. Certainly we know more about how many agencies function within the executive branch than during Nixon’s administration, but there is still progress to be made. Nixon’s grand jury testimony might not have the answers we are looking for, but it is still important that they be available. There are many groups today that can help with online FOIA requests, and this is a very valuable service. Government transparency may not have been able to prevent Watergate from happening, but it could potentially have made the risk too great for Nixon to carry out some of his other “dirty tricks,” and would have changed his perspective on what information could potentially be made public.