WASHINGTON -- Government secrecy is expanding at an unprecedented clip, despite growing public concern about barriers to information, a report expected to be released Saturday found.
OpenTheGovernment.org reports that stamping government documents "secret" cost American taxpayers $8.2 billion last year -- a 7.5 percent increase over the year before.
The coalition found that for every dollar spent declassifying documents, the federal government spends $185 to conceal government documents. Over all, classification cost 2 1/2 times what it cost in 1997.
Open-government advocates blame the policies of the Bush administration.
"The current administration has increasingly refused to be held accountable to the public," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of the coalition of conservative and liberal groups concerned about government secrecy. "These practices lead to the circumscription of democracy."
Administration officials argue that fighting global terrorism and the war in Iraq requires taking precautions to prevent sensitive information from reaching the hands of those who might harm the United States.
"We try to be effective in protecting classified information and enforcing laws and regulations related to handling sensitive information," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman.
Among the findings from the report:
# Businesses enjoyed a no-bid process for 26 percent, or $107.5 billion, of the federal government's business last year.
# President Bush has issued at least 151 signing statements challenging 1,149 provisions of laws passed by Congress. Before 2000, presidents had signed fewer than 600 statements over the nation's 211-year history.
# The Defense Department has more than doubled in real terms the amount it spends on classified weapons acquisitions since 1995. While the number of classification decisions actually dropped by 10 percent to 231,995 last year, the number of documents related to each one of those decisions ballooned to 20.3 million, up by 43 percent.
And those figures do not include the untold number of documents that are locked away by federal agencies in categories known as "pseudo-classification." These are unclassified documents that government bureaucrats deem too sensitive for public consumption. There is no oversight of these categories to ensure that the documents should be removed from the public domain.
The report also found that the Bush administration has invoked a legal tool known as the "state secrets" privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.
Between 1977 and 2000, administrations used the privilege 59 times. Over the past six years, the White House has invoked the privilege 38 times, more than double the rate of administrations during that time frame.
"The bottom line of the report card is Washington is flunking the open-government test," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a public research library at George Washington University. "This is a report card with some F's, a lot of D's and very few grades you would want to show your parents."
Government secrecy is a bipartisan problem. Open-government advocates say it has worsened under the Bush administration because bureaucrats feel empowered to conceal more information in the name of "homeland security." At the same time, the Democratic-controlled Congress has only just begun to exercise its oversight authority.
"Not all government secrecy is wrong," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "The point is it has gotten out of control."
The coalition's report found that secrecy comes at a time when the public is more interested than ever in obtaining government records. The number of requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act last year rose to 21.4 million. By comparison, the public filed 1.9 million requests in 1999.
The coalition's report cited a recent audit that found that 53 out of 57 agencies had backlogs for fulfilling those requests. Twelve of those agencies had requests pending 10 years or more -- well past the 20-day deadline.
The Justice Department, the agency that oversees most of the programs mentioned in the report, said it is reviewing the report.
The department is "committed to an open government as a means to ensure transparency and accountability," said Erik Ablin, a Justice spokesman. "And it is also committed to ensuring that important national security and law enforcement concerns are safeguarded, especially during a time of war and terrorist threat."
The number of FOIA requests processed last year exceeded the number processed the year before by nearly 1.5 million, Ablin said. That means agencies are making significant strides in processing requests, despite the higher numbers of incoming requests, he said.
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