Report Card Tracks the Ebb and Flow of Secrecy

09.08.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The vast apparatus of government secrecy persisted through the last year with only limited changes in the contours of its multi-billion dollar operations, according to the latest “secrecy report card” published by Openthegovernment.org, a coalition of organizations working for increased transparency.

The new report card (pdf), prepared by Patrice McDermott and Amy Fuller Bennett, compiles all available indicators, from classification activity (which declined somewhat in 2008) to declassification activity (also down) to FOIA processing to assertions of executive privilege, in order to provide an empirical, not simply rhetorical, picture of government secrecy as it exists today.  Ideally, such data can be used to inform efforts to revise and correct secrecy policies.

(Interestingly, the Director of National Intelligence has taken steps to frustrate exactly this kind of empirical account of secrecy.  Beginning in 2006, the DNI ordered that DoD intelligence agencies would no longer publicly disclose the amounts of money they spent on classification or declassification-related activities.  Although such previously public information has no plausible bearing on the protection of national security or of intelligence sources and methods, the DNI said that it would henceforth be classified– thereby providing a neat illustration of the underlying problem.)

Judging from its first few months, “The Obama administration so far has a very mixed record on its promise of unprecedented openness,” said Patrice McDermott, director of Openthegovernment.org.  “We look forward to working with the Administration toward meeting this goal, and will continue to work to make sure the public has the information it needs to hold this Administration accountable.”

The new report card was prepared before the announcement last week that White House visitor logs would be publicly released, in response to a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  That step is “historic” and “groundbreaking,” the White House said.  It is “a major step into the sunlight,” the New York Times enthused in an editorial today, and puts the Obama Administration “well on course to be the most open in modern times.”

From our perspective, this seems like a considerable overstatement that mistakes the formalities of openness for the substance.  Laboriously prepared lists of names of visitors to the White House complex provide minimal insight into the policy process.  (Nevermind that a meeting at Caribou Coffee across the street can easily circumvent the new disclosure arrangement.)  A physical visit to the White House is simply not an essential part of the policy process.  If the Bush Administration had not fought so stubbornly to withhold such information, its release would be even less significant.

Given the choice, we would forgo the monthly lists of thousands of names in favor of routine publication of Presidential Policy Directives and Presidential Study Directives, which are fundamental policy documents that do not appear on the Obama White House web site even when they are unclassified.

Despite isolated exceptions, current attempts to steer secrecy policy in a new direction have not yet succeeded — or failed.  The bumpy road to secrecy reform was surveyed most recently in “How to Keep Secrets: Obama Tries to Get Classification Right” by Clint Hendler in the Columbia Journalism Review, September 2, 2009.