Many critics have argued that secrecy, at the federal level, has skyrocketed during the Bush administration. But what, exactly, does that mean? And how can citizens gauge the degree of secrecy their government practices?
One relatively new measuring stick designed to answer both questions is OpenTheGovernment.org, a broad, Web-based coalition of public-interest and professional organizations formed last year to oppose what it sees as the rising tide of secrecy in Washington. The more than 40 member groups include the American Library Association, Common Cause, the Federation of American Scientists and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Last week, the coalition issued its first annual “Secrecy Report Card” (available online at www.openthegovernment.org/otg/SRC2005.pdf). The report crunches numbers in an attempt to show just how far officials are going to keep information out of the public view, offering a snapshot of what its authors call “the remarkable expansion of secrecy in the federal government.” Here’s a selection of the statistics given:
• Believe it or not, the feds actually count the number of times they restrict access to documents — and how much it costs. In 2004, the report says, federal agencies made 15.6 million “classification decisions” (more than twice as many as in 2001), at a cost of $7.2 billion. That’s about $148 per secret.
• In 2004, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves federal law-enforcement requests for wiretaps of American citizens’ phone lines and other secret surveillance, approved 1,754 requests — more than double the number five years ago.
• Members of the public made a record number of Freedom of Information Act requests — more than 4 million of them — last year. And while the FOIA generally remains a slow way to get information, there are some signs of progress on this front. The report notes: “Of the roughly 90 agencies surveyed by the Department of Justice, only 14 were able to keep up with FOIA requests they received [that is, respond to them on the schedule required by law]. But that’s the good news: Only seven agencies had been able to keep up in 2003.”
The state of secrecy in North Carolina
Some key battles in the ongoing struggle over the public’s right to know take place in Raleigh, at the General Assembly.
Every year, new bills are passed that alter North Carolina’s open-government requirements, and this year’s session was no exception. In 2005, advocates of openness made some small gains and lost a few, according to the North Carolina Press Association, a statewide group with 197 member news outlets (including Mountain Xpress).
On its Web site (www.ncpress.com), the group gives its take on the state of secrecy in North Carolina, giving regular updates on its continuing tug of war with officials and legislators over access to information about how government works. As the General Assembly’s 2005 session draws to a close, the association’s legislative counsel, John Bussian, put together a post-mortem on how the group feels freedom-of-information concerns fared this year in the legislative arena. Some highlights:
• Senate Bill 393, which deals with records about economic incentives the state offers to companies that do business in North Carolina, passed. The law, Bussian notes, “gives the press and the public the chance to access the state’s records before the General Assembly votes to approve incentives to be awarded to private businesses.” The law requires that the state make such records public within 25 business days after plans for such incentives are announced.
• Due in part to lobbying by the press association, Bussian writes, the Legislature voted against “twin bills that would have given state agency heads unfettered discretion in withholding public records and would have prevented access to ‘benefits’ paid to public employees.”
• A bill restricting dissemination of autopsy photos passed. Once considered public records, such photos can now be seen — but not copied.
• “The N.C. government lawyer lobby secured the right to keep secret ‘work product’ relating to pending and anticipated litigation,” Bussian writes, noting another new law that restricts the flow of information. But the press association, he reports, “was able to ensure that the records must be produced when the litigation is over or the threat of litigation has passed.”
— Jon Elliston