Government secrecy by almost any measure is expanding and little is being done to stop it, according to a coalition of 67 organizations favoring greater openness.
From classified information to the president’s use of the state-secrets privilege, the lack of disclosure should be a growing concern to the public and the Congress, said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, which compiled a report using mostly the government’s own figures.
“While some of the increased secrecy is attributable to a reaction to 9/11 and to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is also a significant expansion of the power of the executive at the expense of the public, the courts, and Congress,” McDermott said on Aug. 31. “The executive branch seems to believe that something is kept under wraps solely on its say-so, whether it is legitimately so or not.”
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel says the administration’s goal is to effectively protect classified materials and to enforce laws and regulations related to the handling of sensitive information.
From 2003-2005, the FBI made 143,074 requests for telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and others to turn over data, the coalition noted. The requests came in the form of national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge’s approval. In 2000, the FBI issued an estimated 8,500 such requests.
Last year, the number of decisions to classify documents was 231,995. Though the figure was down from 258,633 in 2005, it was still significantly higher than before 2001.
At the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the presidents used the state-secrets privilege six times from 1953 to 1976, enabling the government to unilaterally withhold documents from the court system. Since 2001, it has been used 39 times, the report said.
The privilege arose from a 1953 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the executive branch to keep secret, even from the court, details about a military plane’s fatal crash.
The report viewed presidential signing statements as a secrecy issue, pointing out that in six years, President Bush has issued at least 151 such statements challenging 1,149 provisions in laws. The fact that a single statement may challenge multiple provisions of laws makes it difficult for the public to know that the laws are being faithfully executed, the report stated.
Among recent two-term presidents, Ronald Reagan issued 71 statements challenging provisions of laws before him; Bill Clinton issued 105. Former President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, issued 146 during his single term. In the two centuries before 2000, fewer than 600 signing statements were issued.
The report characterized no-bid government contracts as a secrecy issue, saying the process results in a troubling inability to see whether the public’s money is being spent wisely.
In 2000, 45% of contract dollars were awarded under full and open competition; by 2006, only 34% followed such procedures, said the report. Since 2000, more than 25% of federal contracts were awarded without competition, a total of $559.9 billion.
In the intelligence realm, classified “black” acquisition programs about which nothing is revealed in the budget account for 18% of Pentagon contracting or $31.5 billion, more than double the level from 12 years ago, the group said.
Prying open government secrets is a time-consuming task, the report noted.
The oldest Freedom of Information Act request in the federal government has now been pending for more than 20 years, and more than 21 million FOIA requests pour into departments that devote few resources to handling them, the report said.
Over the past nine years, the number of Freedom of Information Act requests processed at 30 agencies and departments has fallen 20%, and the number of government personnel who handle the requests is down 10%, the report said, citing a recent review by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. The FOIA backlog has tripled at those 30 agencies, and costs of handling a request are up 79%.
Increased secrecy is an issue at the state level as well, the group said.
Since 2001, legislatures passed 52 bills that expand executive powers, impose confidentiality based on federal regulations or programs, and close otherwise public meetings for security reasons.