Groups warn of growing government secrecy

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080909/ap_on_go_ot/government_secrecy

Groups warn of growing government secrecy

By PETE YOST, Associated Press WriterTue Sep 9, 3:09 AM ET

Government secrecy is on the rise by almost every measure, according to a report by a coalition of government oversight groups.

They said the U.S. is classifying more records as top secret or otherwise confidential and employing fewer workers who make federal documents available publicly.

"The open society on which we pride ourselves has been undermined and will take hard work to repair," said the report, described as a "secrecy report card" by OpenTheGovernment.org. It cited 14 different measurements to quantify government secrecy, including patents hidden from the public, secret court approvals for surveillance in sensitive terrorism and espionage investigations and the expanding use of informal labels to keep documents from being disclosed.

The group said there was an 80 percent decline over the last decade in the number of pages of records declassified, dropping last year to 37 million pages. Such declassifications peaked in the Clinton administration, with the opening of 204 million pages in 1997. The findings were based on the government’s own figures.

The late 1990s marked a push to clear out a huge backlog of decades-old documents that should have been declassified long before, said Bill Leonard, a former government expert on classified documents.

"There’s less emphasis now on declassification, not the same level of zealotry to declassify as there used to be," said Leonard, who retired early this year from running the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives.

Other findings:

_Without citing any law passed by Congress, federal agencies are restricting access to many unclassified documents by marking them "sensitive." President Bush gave the practice his imprimatur in May. There is a move in Congress to rein in what the administration is doing.

_Nearly 65 percent of the 7,000 federal advisory committee meetings last year were closed to the public, a figure that appears sharply at odds with Congress’ intent when it passed the law in 1972 governing how such committees should operate.

_Only one-third of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act were fully granted last year, the lowest figure in at least 10 years. During the Clinton administration, more than half of FOIA requests were fully granted. The shift is reflected in the growing number of almost completely blacked-out pages of material released by the government to members of the public or news organizations who obtain government records under the law.

The coalition credited Congress with trying to make the government more open. The House passed two bills to limit restrictions executive branch agencies place on unclassified material. Another new law creates the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives to mediate conflicts between the public’s requests for information and agencies’ refusals to release it.

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On the Net:

OpenTheGovernment.org: http://www.OpenTheGovernment.org

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