White House

Mixed marks for Obama in annual secrecy report card

Open government group lauds progress in FOIA requests, laments declassification backlog.

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.”