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September 16, 2008

The Most Secretive Administration Ever?


by William Fisher

The administration of President George W. Bush continues to expand government secrecy across a broad array of agencies and actions – and at greatly increased cost to taxpayers, according to a coalition of groups that promote greater transparency.

Dr. Patrice McDermott, director of Open the Government, a watchdog group, told IPS, "The federal government under the Bush administration has shown its commitment to secrecy by where it has put its money – more no-bid contracts, fewer government employees processing FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests, less on training on classification issues, and almost 200 dollars spent on keeping secrets to every dollar allocated to open them."

"Given our growing deficit, the next administration faces difficult choices in restoring accountable government," he added.

In its "Secrecy Report Card 2008," released Sept. 9, the group concluded that the Bush administration "exercised unprecedented levels not only of restriction of access to information about federal government's policies and decisions, but also of suppression of discussion of those policies and their underpinnings and sources."

Open the Government is a Washington-based coalition of consumer and good government groups, librarians, environmentalists, labor, journalists, and others.

It says that that classification activity remains significantly higher than before 2001. In 2006, the number of original classification decisions increased to 233,639, after dropping for the two previous years.

The government spent $195 maintaining the secrets already on the books for every one dollar it spent declassifying documents in 2007, a 5 percent increase in one year.

At the same time, fewer pages were declassified than in 2006. The nation's 16 intelligence agencies, which account for a large segment of the declassification numbers, are excluded from the total reported figures.

Classified or "black" programs accounted for about $31.9 billion, or 18 percent of the fiscal year (FY) 2008 Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition funding requested last year. Classified acquisition funding has more than doubled in real terms since FY 1995.

Almost 22 million requests were received under FOIA in 2007, an increase of almost 2 percent over the previous year. But a 2008 study revealed that, in 2007, FOIA spending at 25 key agencies fell by $7 million, to $233.8 million, and the agencies put 209 fewer people to work processing FOIA requests.

While the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does not reveal much about its activities, the Department of Justice reported that, in 2007, the court approved 2,371 orders – rejecting only three and approving two left over from the previous year. Since 2000, federal surveillance activity under the jurisdiction of the court has risen for the ninth year in a row – more than doubling during the Bush administration.

The court was established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 after revelations of the widespread wiretapping by the administration of Richard M. Nixon to spy on political and activist groups. Recently, efforts to reform the act have been triggered by the Bush administration's admission that it had conducted secret surveillance programs in the U.S. without warrants from the court.

In addition, more than 25 percent (worth $114.2 billion) of all contracts awarded by the federal government last year were not subject to open competition – a proportion that has remained largely unchanged for the last eight years.

Investigations by Congress and independent government agencies of the war in Iraq have revealed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts, covering everything from delivering food and water to U.S. troops to providing armed security for U.S. officials and visiting dignitaries. There have been widespread allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse by contractors. Several have been convicted and prosecutions of others are pending.

During 2007, government-wide, 64 percent of meetings of the Federal Advisory Committee were closed to the public. Excluding groups advising three agencies that historically have accounted for the majority of closed meetings, 15 percent of the remainder were closed – a 24 percent increase over the number closed in 2006. These numbers do not reflect closed meetings of subcommittees and task forces.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act was passed in 1972 to ensure that advice by the various advisory committees formed over the years is objective and accessible to the public.

The report also found that in seven years, President Bush has issued at least 156 "signing statements," challenging over 1,000 provisions of laws passed by Congress. In 2007, eight were issued.

The so-called "state secrets privilege" – invoked only six times between 1953 and 1976 – has been used by the Bush administration a reported 45 times, an average of 6.4 times per year in seven years. This is more than double the average (2.46) in the previous 24 years.

The "state secrets privilege" is a legal doctrine that contends that admission of certain information into court proceedings would endanger U.S. national security. The Bush administration has frequently invoked the privilege to dismiss lawsuits that would be embarrassing to the government, and the courts have generally been deferential to the government's claims.

National Security Letter (NSL) requests continued to rise; the 2007 numbers are still classified, but the recently unclassified new number for 2006 shows a 4.7 percent increase in requests over 2005. Since enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the number of NSLs issued has seen an astronomical increase.

The NSL provision of the PATRIOT Act radically expanded the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to demand personal customer records from Internet service providers, financial institutions, and credit companies without prior court approval.

Through NSLs, the FBI is authorized to compile dossiers about innocent people and obtain sensitive information such as the Web sites a person visits and a list of e-mail addresses with which a person has corresponded, or even to unmask the identity of a person who has posted anonymous speech on a political Web site.

The provision also allows the FBI to forbid or "gag" anyone who receives an NSL from telling anyone about the record demand.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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