5 Big Stories of 2013, and Future Expectations

Issues of government secrecy, openness and accountability grabbed headlines across the country during 2013. There are also some issues that might not have had the same amount of exposure, but experienced major changes or challenges. Here is our take on five big stories from 2013 and our future expectations.

  • 1. SURVEILLANCE – Documents provided to journalists by Edward Snowden raised serious questions about the extent and legality of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. In the wake of the disclosures, President Obama committed to releasing more information about the NSA's programs — a commitment that was reiterated in the new round of commitments the Administration released as part of its ongoing involvement in the Open Government Partnership. The need for more disclosures and greater transparency about the surveillance policies was also highlighted by the Final Report of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. In the coming year, as Congress continues to debate various reform proposals and the Administration takes its own steps, transparency is likely to continue to be a frequently-invoked word; ensuring its realization will take further work.
  • 2. LEAKS AND WHISTLEBLOWERS – The end of 2012 saw final passage of the long-anticipated Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, the issuance of a historic Presidential Policy Directive to protect whistleblowers, and an ill-advised (and fortunately unsuccessful) congressional attempt to end "leaks." The debate about leaks and the protection (or the prosecution) of whistleblowers carried on throughout 2013. Just what to expect from Congress or the Administration on these subjects in the coming year is unclear at this point, but they are sure to continue to be major points of contention and controversy.
  • 3. SECRET LAWSecret interpretations of the law have been at the heart of several recent scandals ranging from the National Security Agency's surveillance programs to targeted killings and the use of drones. Throughout 2013, several coalition partners challenged the Administration's refusal to allow the public to know what it views as the limitations and allowances of the pertinent laws. President Obama did the right thing early in his administration by opting to declassify memos by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that authorized interrogation methods many equated with torture. Look for groups to continue to urge the President to act similarly to improve public understanding of how the law is interpreted by government in 2014.
  • 4. FOIA – 2013 was a story of good news/ bad news for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) advocates. The good news is that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed legislation HR 1211 to improve the government's system for processing FOIA requests. The bad news, however, is that the bill does not address any substantive issues with how agencies are using FOIA's exemptions to deny the public information about its decisions and policies. On the "more bad news" side of the ledger, as in years past, we saw several attempts throughout 2013 to allow the government to withhold new types of information from release under the FOIA. As is commonly the case, these provisions were tucked into massive bills that most people do not associate with open government and the right-to-know: the Farm Bill, and cybersecurity legislations. Bringing up the tally on the "good news" side, though, neither of these bills has been passed yet. In the coming year, expect to see greater debate about what changes to the law must be made to finally make the FOIA really work for the public, and continued fights to keep FOIA provisions out of other bills.
  • 5. GOING DIGITAL – Throughout 2013, the Obama Administration continued to expand on its efforts to move government policies beyond the era of copy machines and filing cabinets. Building off the Digital Government Strategy, in 2013 the administration expanded its commitment to open government data to the public, issued guidance for managing federal email records, and began work on modernizing the FOIA process. This is not the kind of work that grabs many headlines, or draws much public interest, but it is important to creating a government that can meet the public's 21st century expectations for information. Expect much of this work to continue, quietly, throughout next year.

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