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.
Patrice McDermott, director of Open the Government, a watchdog group, told the Inter Press Service, "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 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 September 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.
The group says that classification activity remains significantly higher than before 2001. In 2006, the number of original classification decisions increased to 233,639, after decreasing in the two previous years.
At the same time, fewer pages were declassified in 2007 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 2008 Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition funding requested last year. Classified acquisition funding has more than doubled in real terms since fiscal 1995, according to the report.
Almost 22 million requests were received under FOIA in 2007, an increase of almost 2 percent from 2006. 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 United States 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 Iraq War 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, Bush has issued at least 156 "signing statements," challenging more than 1,000 provisions of laws passed by Congress.
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.
Requests for national security letters (NSLs), a kind of administrative subpoena, continued to rise; from 2005 to 2006 requests rose 4.7 percent. Since enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the number of NSLs issued has seen a large increase. The act’s NSL provision radically expanded the authority of the 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 websites a person visits, a list of e-mail addresses with which a person has corresponded, or even unmask the identity of a person who has posted anonymous speech on a political website.
The provision also allows the FBI to forbid or "gag" anyone who receives an NSL from telling anyone about the record demand.
William Fisher writes for the Inter Press Service.
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