2011 Secrecy Report Released: Administration’s Openness Agenda Shows Some Positive Results, National Security Bureaucracy Hinders Change

This morning OpenTheGovernment.org released the 2011 Secrecy Report (formerly known as the Secrecy Report Card), a quantitative report on indicators of government secrecy. This year’s report chronicles positive changes in some indicators of secrecy as a result of the Obama Administration’s openness directives. The indicators tracked by the report also show a national security bureaucracy that continues to expand the size of the secret government.

According to Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, “We are not as yet at the level of ‘unprecedented transparency’ the Obama Administration promises, but we are beginning to see signs that at least some of the Administration’s openness efforts are paying off.” For example, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) backlogs government-wide were reduced by 10% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 compared to FY 2009.
Positive trends are also prevalent in areas where the Executive Office has control. President Obama is the only President for whom we have records who has not asserted Executive Privilege to deny Congressional requests for information. Additionally, the number of times President Obama has used a signing statement to challenge specific aspects of a new law is significantly lower than other modern presidents. And, in unprecedented moves, the Obama Administration has declassified and released information about the U.S. nuclear stockpile, our nuclear posture review, and the full size of the national intelligence budget.

The statistics also indicate, however, that the Administration’s openness agenda has not fully been embraced by the national security bureaucracy. The report highlights how, two years after the effective date of the President’s Executive Order on Classified National Security Information, only a few agencies are taking the required Fundamental Classification Guidance Review process very seriously, with others ignoring or deferring it. The amount of classified material created annually by the government stays well above that created prior to 2000, and the declassification system continues to fall farther behind.

The issues discussed in the Report include: classified Information and classified costs, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signing statements, use of state secrets, and more.

Keeping track of the Administration’s commitments, and measuring how far along it is in delivering on those commitments, takes on a new significance with the Administration’s new Open Government Partnership, an initiative that will bring together partners from many countries and sectors to support governments’ efforts to become more transparent, accountable, and participatory. Countries that elect to participate, including the US, must deliver a concrete action plan, developed with public consultation and feedback and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

According to Dr. McDermott, “We are excited to work with the government to develop a new agenda for making the government more open and accountable, and we look forward to helping them ensure its implementation.”

Another significant addition to the 2011 Secrecy Report is an analysis of FOIA delays using data from FOIA users’ perspectives. Thanks to data from MuckRock, an online tool to help people access government data, the report analyzes the often inexplicably long delays users face in receiving information they request from the government and brings attention to other issues that regularly complicate users’ attempts to get government information.

This report was made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the CS Fund, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the S R Mott Foundation (through the Philanthropic Ventures Fund).

 See our press release here.