September 5, 2004
Government by, for and Secret From the People
HE capital's worst-kept secret is out: the federal government is becoming even more secretive.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the post-Sept. 11 age or tried to find out why his name was put on a "no fly" list, only to be told the information was too sensitive to be shared. But a new study seeks to quantify the government's interest in keeping material classified. It found that the administration protected some 14 million documents last year - a 60 percent increase since 2001.
The study, conducted by a coalition called openthegovernment.org, which favors greater access to government information, also found that it cost the federal government $6.5 billion last year to secure its classified information, an increase of 39 percent since 2001.
Classifying and maintaining the nation's secrets amounted to $459 a memo - or $120 spent on maintaining secrets for each dollar spent to declassify and release them.
Requests for access to federal material under the Freedom of Information Act, meanwhile, have tripled in the last six years to more than 3.2 million in 2003, but federal resources devoted to handling those requests has remained largely constant.
The resulting backlog at some agencies has delayed responses by up to four years, the study found. At the same time, the Justice Department has made it easier for federal officials to refuse to release public records in the name of national security.
The federal government's penchant for secrecy is an old, bipartisan fact of life.
"This problem of overclassification and of secrecy has been a problem throughout the history of this country," Representative Dennis I. Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat and former presidential candidate, said at a recent Congressional hearing. "The White House has always kept the intelligence agency's budget secret, and deceptions in the defense budget date back to the Manhattan Project of World War II," he said.
In 1997, a commission led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke of a governmental "culture of secrecy," and urged greater openness.
But many historians say they believe secrecy has become even more pervasive since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House says the increase in classified documents is a reflection of changing times.
"One explanation is the increased use of e-mail, which has dramatically increased the number of items that have to be classified," said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"And the second thing is that we are in a wartime environment, where intelligence plays such an important role. There is not only more classified information collected, but more analysis to be done with it as a result, and these are sensitive things that have to be classified in an appropriate manner," the official said.
The administration has occasionally been admonished for going too far, as happened in June when a federal judge in California accused the Justice Department of using frivolous claims to justify its refusal to release basic information about how the federal government develops lists of travelers who are banned from flying.
Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, who was chairman of the hearing where Mr. Kucinich spoke, railed against the federal government's effort "to shield an immense and growing body of secrets using an incomprehensible, complex system of classifications."
"There are too many secrets," he said.