Government earns low marks for openness

Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:10 p.m. Sept. 7, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

A recent sharp increase in government secrecy is evident in the percentage of federal contracting dollars awarded without competition and in the executive branch’s use of the state secrets privilege, according to the latest secrecy report card from OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of open-government advocacy organizations.

The annual report card identified what the coalition said is a troubling lack of openness in military procurement, frequent assertions of executive privilege and repeated use of presidential signing statements to challenge 1,149 provisions in laws Congress passed. President Bush raised constitutional objections in at least 85 percent of those signing statements.

The authors of the report also said the executive branch is using state secrecy as its trump card. For example, the executive office invoked the state secrets privilege 59 times between 1977 and 2000, a rate of 2.46 times a year, the report states. Since 2001, however, Bush administration officials have invoked the state secrets privilege at least 38 times, a rate of 5.85 times year.

The report also highlights a growing agency practice of controlling public access to information using internal rules — the report calls them pseudo-classification policies — that vary from agency to agency and threaten government accountability.
"The federal government," the report card states, "has greatly expanded its ability to control unclassified, public information through vague restrictions that give government officials wide latitude to declare information beyond the public's reach."

A recent inventory of controlled unclassified information conducted by Thomas McNamara, program manager for the Information Sharing Environment, identified at least 50 types of restrictions on sensitive but unclassified data. The report card states that those restrictions exist outside the national-security classification system and are implemented through laws, regulations or mere assertions by government officials that information should not be released.

A sample from those controlled unclassified information categories illustrates the problem: Business Confidential, Confidential, Confidential Business Information, In Confidence, For Official Use Only, Limited Official Use, Official Use Only.

Because those designations fall outside the national-security classification system, information with those designations is subject to none of its constraints or guidelines, the report states. Those designations are especially confusing to state and local law enforcement agencies that receive information from the federal government and must understand and protect it according to each agency's rules.

McNamara is developing recommendations for standardizing procedures for labeling and handling controlled unclassified information.

The report card highlights another problem: the growing secrecy of federal advisory-committee meetings. In 2006, 63 percent of 7,189 such meetings were closed to the public. The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 created federal advisory committees to give scientific and technical advice in open forums.

“The number is surprisingly high,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. ”There are valid legal reasons for closing some committee meetings, but when the fraction gets too high there is a risk that the process can be corrupted. Closed meetings need to be the exception, not the rule.”

The majority of closed meetings were held by committees advising the Defense and Health and Human Services depart
ents and the National Science Foundation.

The secrecy report, released Sept. 1, is the coalition's fourth annual report card. The coalition represents 65 open-government advocacy groups, including the Federation of American Scientists, OMB Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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