Mixed marks for Obama in annual secrecy report card

White House

President Obama’s three-year-old effort to reduce unnecessary government secrecy has produced some historical firsts in transparency, but agency wariness about declassifying national security information has slowed progress toward openness, according to an annual secrecy report card.

The “2012 Secrecy Report” by the nonprofit OpentheGovernment.org, rounds up the latest figures on agency processing of Freedom of Information Act requests, ongoing declassification of documents and handling of whistleblower complaints.

The report applauds the administration for being the first in history to release the intelligence community budget, but it also noted that in June, Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time in his presidency in response to a subpoena issued to the Justice Department by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a dispute over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun operation allegedly mishandled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

The government also released the number of people who hold security clearances for access to classified information, which increased by 3 percent over the previous year to a new reported high of more than 4.8 million persons as of Oct. 1, 2011. At the same time, the proportion of documents originally determined to require classified status fell by 44 percent, the lowest level since 1996.

FOIA requests, the report noted, rose 5 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2011, and agencies processed 644,165, or 8 percent, more than the previous year, yet the backlog grew by 20 percent, reaching 83,490.

“The administration’s strong commitment to restoring the presumption that a person who requests government records under the FOIA should get them is an important message to agencies, and the administration’s emphasis on improving FOIA processing has resulted in real improvements at some agencies,” the authors wrote. But anecdotal evidence indicates that “FOIA requesters continue to experience delays and other frustrations; the public continues to have a hard time finding basic information on agencies’ websites or good contact information for anyone that can help them.”

The open government community praised the ongoing declassification effort by the National Archives and Records Administration. But the Archives’ Declassification Center, the report said, will not meet its goal for publicly releasing old records on time. “The government continues to use the state secrets privilege in the same way it did prior to DOJ’s release of a new procedural policy,” the report said, “and the volume of documents marked ‘classified’ continues to grow, with little assurance or reason offered for the decision.”

Whistleblower complaints filed with the Office of Special Counsel have produced a 2012 caseload that is 10 percent above last year’s level, and the office is “on pace to secure 156 favorable actions for federal employees who have been victims of reprisal for whistleblowing or other prohibited personnel practices” -- an 86 percent increase over fiscal 2011’s level and an all-time high for OSC.

A commentary on the report by Suzie Dershowitz, of the allied Project on Government Oversight, cited as “bad news” that the number of documents designated as classified continues to grow. “And the cost of secrecy continues to rise: For every $1 the government spent on declassification in 2011, it spent $215 maintaining government secrets already on the books.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.