Uncle Sam’s Secrets

Agencies are paying the price for keeping more and more information hidden from public view.

Each year in March, those of us in the media put the spotlight on the information dissemination practices of government at all levels in an annual event called Sunshine Week. Of course, we journalists always think the government is keeping the best stuff from us, and thus infringing on the public's right to know.

Right now, federal agencies are giving us plenty of ammunition to support that notion.

In early March, ScrippsNews reported that in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, federal agencies are increasingly telling people, "We can't find what you're looking for." At the FBI, 74 percent of requests for information last year were denied on the grounds that no records could be found. Six years ago, the figure was 56 percent.

The story was the same at other agencies: The State Department provided full or partial disclosure of information in response to requests 54 percent of the time in 2000. But by 2006, the figure had dropped to 35 percent. At Commerce, the decline was from 67 percent to 52 percent. And the response rate at the Securities and Exchange Commission dropped from 46 percent to 35 percent.

Also, the news service found, agencies are redacting more of the information they eventually let out. In 2000, the FBI provided 1,284 unaltered documents in response to FOIA requests. In 2006, only 56 such documents were released. The CIA issued 1,084 uncensored documents six years ago, and only 334 last year.

By and large, federal agencies are not using the tools of the Information Age to improve their dissemination practices, even though they're required by law to do so. The National Security Archive at The George Washington University recently released a study detailing "massive noncompliance" with the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments. Barely 20 percent of agencies, the study found, post all four categories of records that the law requires them to provide on their FOIA Web sites. Only about a third provided required indexes and guides to records.

"The poor state of agencies' FOIA Web sites forces the conclusion that not only did the agencies ignore Congress, but lack of interest in FOIA programs is so high that many agencies have failed even to keep their FOIA Web sites on par with their general agency Web sites," the report concluded.

What are the consequences of agencies' failures to provide information in a timely, accessible fashion? One is that Americans increasingly view the federal government as secretive, according to a survey commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in connection with Sunshine Week. Only 25 percent of those polled said they think the federal government is either "very open" or "somewhat open," while 69 percent said it's either "somewhat secretive" or "very secretive." Last year, 33 percent thought the federal government was open and 62 percent thought it was secretive.

This isn't just a knee-jerk reaction to government secrecy at all levels, either. Respondents to the survey singled out the feds. Clear majorities said they thought their state and local governments were open to scrutiny.

Of course, not all agencies are in the same boat when it comes to openness. The National Security Archive praised the Education and Justice departments, the Federal Trade Commission, NASA and the National Labor Relations Board for having exemplary electronic FOIA systems. These provide required guidance, offer comprehensive indexes, organize information into online reading rooms and have set up easy-to-navigate Web sites.

"Please don't put all agencies in the same boat," says an official with the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 office, serving Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The regional office is planning a FOIA conference with Chicago's Department of Environment and the Illinois EPA this year to educate members of the public on how to get the information they seek.

Now's the time for other agencies to study up on such best practices. It's easy to treat constant carping from the media about government openness with skepticism, if not disdain. But when agencies' information practices start to affect Americans' perception of how their government is serving them, it's time to stand up and take notice.

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