By SUZIE DERSHOWITZ
Today, OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of over 80 groups (including POGO) advocating for more open and accountable government, released its annual Secrecy Report for 2012. (Full disclosure: POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury contributed to the report, and POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian is Chair of OpenTheGovernment.org’s steering committee.) The report demonstrated both positive changes resulting from the Obama Administration’s open government policies and enormous remaining challenges for the public’s ability to hold government accountable.
One of the most significant improvements documented in the report is the official disclosure in 2012 of the total amount of money requested for the intelligence budget for the first time in history. This is a huge win for government openness, particularly because government officials fought against transparency in intelligence spending for so long. It is also notable that, even though Congress only mandated disclosure of the National Intelligence Program request, the Secretary of Defense voluntarily disclosed the dollar amount requested for the Military Intelligence Program as well.
Some of the encouraging developments documented in the report center on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although requesters are still plagued by long waits and agencies still regularly invoke overly broad exemptions to withhold information, the federal government processed almost 8 percent more requests in FY 2011 than in the previous year—marking a four-year high.
There was also good news for government whistleblowers. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is tasked with safeguarding the merit system by protecting covered employees from prohibited personnel practices. For FY 2012, OSC is on track to deliver 156 favorable actions for federal employees who have suffered reprisal for whistleblowing or other prohibited personnel practices. This number is an all-time high for the agency and represents an 86 percent increase over FY 2011.
What about the bad news on government secrecy?
Established by Executive Order 13526, the National Declassification Center (NDC) was tasked with eliminating by December 2013 the backlog of 25-year-old records awaiting declassification. Although the NDC has made some progress, only about 50 million pages of the original 370-million-page backlog have been completely processed over the last two-and-a-half years. At this rate it will be nearly impossible to for the NDC to meet its presidentially mandated deadline.
There is more bad news on the national security front. The government continues to stop cases from going to trial by invoking “state secrets” privilege. Initially conceived as a way to keep pieces of classified national security information from being revealed during a trial, recent administrations, including the present one, have used the state secrets privilege to prevent people from seeking judicial redress for some of the gravest constitutional offenses, including government torture and illegal surveillance. In 2009, the Attorney General instituted a new state secrets policy that sets internal procedural measures to keep the Administration in check. The policy also requires DOJ to refer cases that were ended by assertion of the privilege to the appropriate Inspector General (IG) when credible allegations of wrongdoing are made. But the impact of the policy is unclear and it remains unknown whether or not DOJ actually refers cases to the IGs. The government continues to use the privilege in the same way as before.
The report also indicated that the number of documents designated as “classified” continues to grow, with little or no explanation about why the information needs to be shielded from the public. And the cost of secrecy continues to rise: for every $1 the government spent on declassification in 2011, it spent $215 maintaining government secrets already on the books.
Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said:
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the launch of multiple wars, we chronicled a major growth in the secrecy of the federal government. The Obama Administration has set policies that are starting to turn the tide in favor of open government. But, as far as we can tell from existing numbers, those policies have yet to fully change the direction of government.
The report’s contributors will be hosting a Twitter chat from 4–5 p.m. on Tuesday, September 18. To join the discussion, follow #secrecy12.
Suzie Dershowitz is a public policy fellow with the Project On Government Oversight.Follow @sdershowitz