WASHINGTON — The government is withholding more information than ever from the public and expanding ways of shrouding data. Last year, federal agencies spent a record $148 creating and storing new secrets for each $1 spent declassifying old secrets, a coalition of watchdog groups reported on Sept. 3.
That's a $28 jump from 2003, when $120 was spent to keep secrets for every $1 spent revealing them. In the late 1990s, the ratio was $15-$17 a year to $1, according to the secrecy report card by OpenTheGovernment.org.
Overall, the government spent $7.2 billion in 2004 stamping 15.6 million documents "top secret," "secret" or "confidential." That almost doubled the 8.6 million new documents classified as recently as 2001.
Last year, the number of pages declassified declined for the fourth straight year to 28.4 million. In 2001, 100 million pages were declassified; the record was 204 million pages in 1997.
These figures cover 41 federal agencies, excluding the CIA, whose classification totals are secret.
"These numbers show we are going in the wrong direction," said Rick Blum, author of the report and director of the coalition of consumer, environmental, labor, journalism and library groups.
The report also noted the growing use of secret searches, court secrecy, closed meetings by government advisory groups and patents kept from public view.
"The 9-11 Commission pointed out that too much secrecy can make us less safe from terrorists, and the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina shows the public needs to know what could happen in their communities and what the response plans are," said Blum. He said a new law outside the classification system shrouds "sensitive homeland security information" about infrastructure vulnerabilities and plans.
"Public engagement in helping fight terrorism or addressing public health risks is the biggest single advantage American society has," Blum said.
The numbers do not solely reflect overclassification, said J. William Leonard, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors classification. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "many agencies have gone to 24/7 operations, others have increased their intelligence product, and the military is fighting two wars. You can't do that without producing more classified, and unclassified, information."
Classification costs rise as agencies share secrets electronically, Leonard said. Yet, he said, "the great lesson of 9-11 is that improper hoarding of information can cost lives and harm national security."
The report identified 50 new restrictions in laws, regulations or "mere assertions by government officials" that keep unclassified information from the public. Some are needed to protect privacy or trade secrets, the report said, but "such unchecked secrecy threatens accountability in government."
These include labels like "limited official use," "critical infrastructure information" and "operations security protected."
"The volume and impact of these pseudo-classifications is growing," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House national security subcommittee, and "inhibits the free flow of critical information."
Leonard said, "No one individual in government can identify all the controlled, unclassified (markings), let alone describe their rules."
Blum said he was encouraged by emergence in the last year of "a vocal chorus pushing back against secrecy." He cited a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and efforts like the Sunshine in Government Initiative, organized by the Associated Press and seven organizations interested in journalism.