Secrecy Report Card Shows Continued Expansion of Federal Government Secrecy

Government secrecy continues to grow across a wide array of indicators, according to OpenTheGovernment.org‘s annual Secrecy Report Card, released today. Findings of this year’s report, Secrecy Report Card 2008 [correction], include:

  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests Continue to Rise; Backlogs Problems Persist

Almost 22 million FOIA requests were received in 2007, an increase of almost 2% over last year. The 25 departments and agencies that handle the bulk of the third-party information requests, however, received 63,000 fewer requests than 2006 — but processed only 2,100 more.

  • 2,371 Orders of the Secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)

While the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does not reveal much about its activities, the Department of Justice reported that, in 2007, the FISC approved 2,371 orders — rejecting three and approving two left over from the previous year.

  • Scientific and Technical Advice Increasingly Closed to Public

In 2007, governmentwide 64% of Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) committee hearings were closed to the public. Excluding groups advising three agencies that historically have accounted for the majority of closed meetings,15% of the remainder were closed — a 24% increase over the number closed in 2006. These numbers do not reflect closed meetings of subcommittees and taskforces.

  • Reported Invocations of the State Secrets Privilege Continue to Rise

Invoked only 6 times between 1953 and 1976, the privilege has been used a reported 45 times — an average of 6.4 times per year in 7 years (through 2007) — more than double the average (2.46) in the previous 24 years.

Despite this generally grim look at the expansion of government secrecy, there are some signs of sunshine. One recent victory for openness was the enactment last December of the OPEN Government Act (P.L. 110-175) to reform the Freedom of Information Act. The Secrecy Report Card describes some current legislative initiatives aimed at increasing openness in the executive branch, including the following bills which AALL supports:

  • H.R. 6576, the Reducing Information Control Designations Act, and H.R. 6193, the Improving Public Access to Documents Act of 2008 to limit and standardize the use of control markings of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI).
  • H.R. 6575, the Over-Classification Reduction Act and H.R. 4806, the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2008 to reduce overclassification in the federal government.
  • H.R. 985, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2007, and S. 274, the Federal Employee Protection of Disclosures Act to protect public employees who speak out to protect against waste, fraud and abuse.
  • S. 2533, the State Secrets Protection Act and H.R. 5607, the State Secret Protection Act of 2008 to establish standards and procedures to limit the use of the state secrets privilege.
  • S. 3077, the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act, to help strengthen the Federal Accountability and Transparency Act (P.L. 109-282), the law that resulted in USASpending.gov, a searchable web site of Federal grants, contracts, loans and other financial assistance.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

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