OpenTheGovernment.org, a group of organizations dedicated to enhancing and preserving freedom of information in government, states in its newly released annual report that while the Obama administration has strengthened its openness more than the Bush administration — which was criticized for its secrecy and unaccountability — a true trend toward transparency remains to be seen. The group studied the last three months of the Bush administration and the first nine months of Obama’s administration.
The report applauded the Obama administration for creating two agencies aiding transparency, avoiding invocation of executive privilege, reducing the number of federal employees able to classify documents and reducing information request backlogs.
In 2009, the administration created the Office of Government Information Services, which referees conflicts between federal Freedom of Information Act requesters and federal agencies, and also issued an executive order to create the National Declassification Center.
In addition, the Obama administration did not assert an executive privilege since taking office, a presidential mandate that refuses Congress, the courts or private parties information that’s been requested or subpoenaed, during his first year. Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan each used executive privilege once during their first year in office.
The government also has made an effort to curb the number of government employees with “original classification authority,” or the ability to classify documents as top secret, secret or confidential. In 2008, there were 4,109 federal workers with this status. By 2009, the number had shrunk to 2,557 — the lowest since 1993. Even so, derivative classifications, or classified documents that can be changed or mutated, soared 135 percent in 2009, mainly because classified e-mail messages were included for the first time.
Finally, the administration reduced the number of backlogged requests by 40 percent in 2009, processing 55,000 more requests than it received in the fiscal year of 2009. Most of this drop is due to the Department of Homeland Security, which had 74,879 backlogs in 2008, but just 18,918 by the next year. Some of these backlogs are quite old; the longest pending request in 2009 was 18 years.
However, the administration has run into trouble with closed meetings, declining declassifications and a $75 billion National Intelligence Budget.
The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 declared that “each advisory committee meeting shall be open to the public,” with a few exceptions. Of the 7,721 full committee meetings held by the 925 active federal advisory committees, more than 73 percent of the meetings were closed to the public, a record high since 1997.
OpenTheGovernment.org also reported that for every $1 the government spent declassifying documents in 2009, it spent about $196 maintaining current secrets. In 2009, $8.81 billion was spent on classified documents, only $44.65 million was spent on declassifying documents, 0.5 percent of the total amount. While money spent on declassifying documents increased by 4 percent in 2009, the amount has largely been on the decline.
The number of Freedom of Information Act requests received (557,825) by the government also declined by about 8 percent from 2008 to 2009. However, the cost of processing these requests rose by 12 percent, the highest it’s been since 1999.