Advocates see some open government dividends

Wednesday - 9/7/2011, 5:46am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

Click here to listen to the interview with Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Federal agencies are making progress toward fulfilling the spirit of the White House's open government directives, but the Obama administration still needs to give agencies more direction and more support, according to a newly-released scorecard of government secrecy.

Aside from incremental improvements on traditional measures of government openness,such as agencies' responsiveness to the Freedom of Information Act, there have been "unprecedented" new steps toward declassification in the area of national security secrets, according to OpenTheGovernment.org, which compiled the 2011 secrecy report on behalf of 16 good government and consumer advocacy groups.

For instance, the government disclosed the budgets for both the national intelligence program and the military intelligence program in October 2010, and released previously classified details about the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the Nuclear Posture Review earlier in the year. In previous years, agencies either kept such information secret or it had to be obtained through lawsuits by watchdog groups.

"Doing it proactively is, I think, a big step in the right direction," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org and a co-author of the report. "It shows not just rhetoric, but follow-through by the administration. It shows that in the areas of the bureaucracy that they can control, they really do mean what they're saying."

The groups also found progress in the regular indexes of openness that they monitor on an annual basis. For example, backlogs of FOIA requests fell by 7 percent governmentwide in 2010, there were no assertions of executive privilege to block the release of information to Congress and the use of presidential signing statements to tinker with acts of Congress has fallen.

But in other areas, the report found results that were mixed or troubling to open government advocates, McDermott said.

For instance, the number of federal officials who are empowered to classify a document as confidential, secret or top secret fell from 4,109 in 2008 to 2,378 in 2010 in response to an executive order that told agencies to review their delegations of original classifying authority.

Despite that, however, the number of documents that were actually classified shot up in 2010 — to 224,734, compared to 183,224 the previous year.

"That's disturbing," McDermott said. "The WikiLeaks disclosures show us to some extent that some of what gets marked confidential or secret is marked that way more to prevent embarrassment or hide policy debates rather than to protect information that really does need to be protected. Having said that, the most recent WikiLeaks disclosures show that there also are real situations where informers who have cooperated with the government and really do need to be protected, so it cuts both ways. But I think the inclination of a lot of the national security bureaucracy is to, when in doubt, stamp it secret."

The groups also criticized agencies' non-adherence to the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, in which the White House told agencies to scour their existing guidelines for determining whether information needs to be classified. A survey conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, an OpenTheGovernment.org contributor, concluded that only a few agencies were heeding the directive.

"Some are just ignoring it, some think it just doesn't apply to them," McDermott said. "The White House, through the Information Security Oversight Office, has gone back out to the agencies and said, 'Really, we mean this,' and they've still not gotten a lot of response. I'm not sure of the reason. In the past, sometimes agencies have tried to ride out a presidency and hope these guys will go away. I'm not sure if that's what's going on here, but some of these agencies haven't updated their guidance in the last two or three presidencies. Certainly between Clinton and Bush and between Bush and Obama there are significant changes that should have been included in agencies' guidance."

More broadly, in order to ensure the White House fulfills its open government promises, it needs to keep pressure on agencies to make sure the administration's various directives are followed, McDermott said.

"They have an ongoing interagency working group, and 50 people still show up for those meetings, which is almost unheard of," she said. "But what we're not seeing from the outside is more transparency on policy. It's relatively easy for agencies to put their information on data.gov. The policy stuff is a lot harder, and it exposes the agency more to real accountability sorts of questions. We'd like to see the White House push the agencies more and also follow up with them more. The White House has a lot on its plate, but if they're going to tout themselves as being committed to openness, they have to put the resources behind that."

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