Article

The Cost of Secrecy

Government data confirm what many have suspected: Secrecy has increased dramatically in recent years.

As detailed in a new report by OpenTheGovernment.org , an anti-secrecy coalition for which I serve as coordinator, the Bush administration is devoting far more resources to keeping secrets and declassifying far fewer documents. Specifically:

  • The federal government spent $6.5 billion last year creating 14 million new classified documents and securing accumulated secrets – more than it has for at least the past decade. Of course, this dollar figure excludes the CIA, whose budget is also a secret.
  • Agency heads are shifting taxpayer dollars from efforts to declassify pages of documents in favor of efforts to secure existing secrets. For every $1 the federal government spent in 2003 releasing old secrets, it spent an amazing $120 maintaining existing secrets.
  • In 2001, agencies declassified more than 100 million pages of documents. That number fell to 44,365,711 in 2002 and to just 43,093,233 in 2003.
  • Resources devoted to handling public requests for information have held steady even as demand has skyrocketed. Last year alone, there were more than three million requests for information from government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act.

Unfortunately, the problem is even worse than the classification numbers suggest. Citing the threat of terrorism, the Bush administration has also advanced a host of new policies restricting or limiting public access to information that is not classified. Among other things, the administration has:

  • Stripped information from government websites – including, for example, data on chemical-plant dangers.
  • Ordered federal agencies to "safeguard" information that is "sensitive but unclassified" – a broad, ill-defined category that could be used to restrict information on just about anything. This order was later codified in a provision of the Homeland Security Act, giving the president legal authority to "prescribe and implement procedures" for suppressing such information.
  • Convinced Congress to pass legislation blocking public access to "critical infrastructure information" – which covers information on everything from computer systems to water supplies to power plants to local health systems. Similarly, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later adopted a rule exempting "critical energy infrastructure information" from the Freedom of Information Act. This includes reports in which utilities describe their power flow, transmission plans and reliability.

Of course, certain information should be kept secret. For instance, we do not want to expose our country's intelligence agents. Nor do we want to reveal the methods we use to gather intelligence or how much we spend on specific intelligence projects. Narrowly prescribed, these secrets are necessary for the safety and security of our country.

When they are taken too far, however, we put ourselves at risk. Excessive secrecy blinds us to surrounding danger and thwarts public involvement, which is frequently an essential ingredient to solving problems.

For instance, when rocket fuel from an Army base was found in the groundwater near Aberdeen, Md., a community group mobilized and worked with the Army to track water contamination. For years, the Army shared maps of ammunition testing sites in a constructive relationship with the citizens group. After 9/11, however, the Army tightened control over the information and asked group members to sign confidentiality agreements. The group believed this action undermined community safety, and launched a lawsuit to regain access to the information. Eventually, the Army agreed to share the information as long as the group did not post it to the Internet.

Unfortunately, Aberdeen is an exception. Crucial health and safety information – available before 9/11 – remains off limits or out of reach to communities across the country. As in Aberdeen, the public has previously used this information to push government – and corporations – to make significant health and safety improvements. By restricting access, the Bush administration is inviting complacency and a false sense of security while undermining our democratic values.

Moreover, as the numbers dramatically show, each new secret is expensive. In a recent congressional hearing, a Pentagon official estimated that half of the information the Defense Department classifies should not be made secret. Getting the system right – so the government keeps necessary secrets while better sharing information among government agencies and with the public – would make America more secure and potentially save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Rick Blum is coordinator of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of more than 30 organizations concerned about rising government secrecy. The coalition's latest report, "Secrecy Report Card: Quantitative Indicators of Secrecy in the Federal Government," is available at www.OpenTheGovernment.org.