WASHINGTON – Government secrecy has increased sharply in the past few years — keeping Americans in the dark about information they should be able to access, says a report released Thursday by a coalition of watchdog groups.
It found the federal government created 14 million new classified documents in fiscal year 2003 — a 26 percent increase over the number of documents stamped secret in 2002, and a 60 percent increase over 2001. Those numbers cover over 40 agencies, but exclude the CIA (search).
At the same time, the government is declassifying fewer documents, the report said. Some 43 million pages were declassified in 2003, down from 44 million the year before — and a significant decrease from 2001 when 100 million pages were declassified.
"There are secrets that are necessary, but there are a heck of a lot of secrets that are being kept secret that the public would benefit from, with their disclosure," said Rick Blum, coalition coordinator for OpenTheGovernment.org and author of the report.
Blum said secrecy is not just a Bush administration problem. He said the recent spike began in 2000 during the Clinton administration.
"Clearly, we in the government classify too much," said J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives. His office monitors the government's security classification process.
Leonard said the higher number of classified materials may be a result of a government that is working harder and producing more documents in a post-Sept 11 world, with a military fighting the war on terrorism (search). "It doesn't necessarily represent a propensity toward secrecy," he said.
But he added that agencies are too quick to automatically apply classification.
The coalition measured the scope of government secrecy by examining federal data on documents classified and declassified over the last nine years. It also looked at the money spent on classification and the number of requests from the public for information under the Freedom of Information Act (search).
More than $6.5 billion was spent making documents secret last year, while only $53 million financed declassification projects, the report said.
The coalition also found a steady rise in the number of public requests for information from the government in the last five years, with more than 3 million requests in 2003 — up from 869,000 in 1998.
The coalition is based in Washington and comprised of groups representing consumers, environmentalists, labor, journalists and librarians concerned about government secrecy.