San Francisco Chronicle
August 27, 2004

White House takes secrecy to new levels, coalition reports

by Edward Epstein

Washington -- The federal government under President Bush is classifying more information as secret, spending more to do it and falling further behind in dealing with the public's requests for information, a coalition of groups trying to combat secrecy in government reported Thursday.

"Secrecy has increased dramatically in recent years under the policies of the current administration," the 30-organization coalition called Openthegovernment.org said.

That tendency toward secrecy has increased since the 2001 terrorist attacks and was criticized in the Sept. 11 commission's report. It called for lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding the budget for the federal government's 15 intelligence agencies, which is widely estimated at $40 billion, although the official figure is classified. It also said that secrecy between the intelligence agencies hampered the war against terrorism by "stovepiping" information within individual agencies rather than encouraging sharing across the intelligence community.

Openthegovernment's report said costs for classifying information and maintaining secrecy at federal agencies excluding the CIA hit $6.5 billion in 2003, when 14 million documents were classified. Figures from the National Archives' information security oversight office and elsewhere show that the number of documents being classified has jumped 40 percent from 2001.

The figure for how much the CIA spends on classifying information isn't available. It's classified.

In contrast, the number of documents declassified in 2003 was 43.1 million, about a fifth of the number declassified in 1997, the report added. And for every $120 the government spent maintaining its system of secrecy, it spent only $1 on declassification.

The result is an increasing backlog of requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. As an example, the coalition said requests for information made today from the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley (Los Angeles County) would probably be filled in 2008.

While saying the situation had worsened under the Bush administration, the coalition -- whose members include journalism organizations, government watchdog groups and the AFL-CIO -- said the trend toward more classification of information actually started in the last years of President Bill Clinton's administration.

The Sept. 11 commission's findings have fueled efforts to limit or roll back government secrecy. Its ideas on secrecy have received less attention than the headline-making proposals to create a sole national intelligence director, but they also could have a major impact on how the nation fights the war against terrorism. And like emerging opposition to the intelligence director proposal from those with vested interests in keeping their power, the anti-secrecy proposals also can be expected to attract critics who have long resisted efforts to lift the veil of stealth surrounding intelligence spending and operations.

"We can't have a public debate, because the American people aren't entitled by law to know how much money we're spending on all these agencies -- by law," commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said as the panel's best-selling report was issued July 22.

He said the Sept. 11 investigation had learned that some 75 percent of what U.S. intelligence knew about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been gleaned before 1996 but was held in "classified, compartmentalized sections."

"How in God's name are you supposed to imagine a threat if the facts are being withheld from you?" Kerrey asked.

Steven Aftergood, head of the American Federation of Scientists' project on government secrecy, says the proposal on declassifying information about the spy budget and how much each agency gets is a good place to start in piercing the veil of secrecy.

"I don't think the solution is to try to fix the whole system at a single blow," he told a House Government Reform subcommittee Tuesday. He said making budget information public would have a cascading effect on letting the public get information. However, he warned, Congress has defeated previous attempts to end the budget secrecy, and intelligence agencies have fought his group's court efforts to get data disclosed.

"There is no other category of information that has been as vigorously maintained as secret for so long, with so much energy, as intelligence budget information," Aftergood said. "If we can fix that, then the road becomes clear to fixing a whole range of other erroneously or improperly classified categories of information."

The House subcommittee chairman, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said declassifying more information while keeping genuine secrets classified would help the war against terrorists. "Fewer people classifying fewer secrets would better protect national security by focusing safeguards on truly sensitive information while allowing far wider dissemination of the facts and analysis the 9/11 commission says must be shared," Shays said.

E-mail Edward Epstein at [email protected]

Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle