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Federal secrecy is rising rapidly

Classified documents up 81% since 2001, nonprofit group says

WASHINGTON — The federal government is classifying documents, closing advisory meetings and approving secret surveillance warrants at an unprecedented rate, according to a report being released today.

A coalition of conservative and liberal nonprofit groups called Openthegovernment.org found that secrecy is on the rise across all three branches of government and costing taxpayers more money than ever before.

Last year, federal officials classified 15.6 million new documents, about 81 percent more than they stamped secret in 2001, the first year of the Bush administration.

The cost of classifying those documents rose from $4.7 billion to $7.2 billion over the same period, not including what the CIA marked secret — since that figure is itself secret.

For every dollar spent declassifying documents, federal officials spent a record $148 last year creating and storing new secrets, according to the report. The amount spent on declassifying materials dropped to a new low of $48.3 million last year.

"The long-term impact of the growth of government secrecy is the public loses out," said Rick Blum, executive director of Openthegovernment.org. "The public loses the chance to make a difference in their communities."

For example, if a local community isn't aware of a security risk at a local chemical plant, it will not be prepared for a catastrophe, he said.

John Nowacki, a Justice Department spokesman, said that "despite the fact that terrorists are seeking to harm innocent Americans, our government is the most open government in the world. The Department of Justice carefully balances the public interest with our mission of keeping the American public safe."

J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration, agrees with Blum that too much information is being needlessly classified.

"Is overclassification an issue and a serious issue? Yes it is," said Leonard, whose office provides internal oversight of classified material. But overclassification is a bipartisan problem that dates back to the Truman administration, he said, so it would be unfair to blame Bush for the surge in classified documents.

Leonard attributes the increase to the advent of technology in government, explaining that each classification decision spawns hundreds of electronic classified documents. He also cites the secrecy required to fight a war in Iraq and against terrorists around the globe, as well as increased domestic security.

In the past, federal officials have focused exclusively on how national security might be adversely impacted if information were improperly disclosed, he said. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Leonard said, it is important for the government to realize that there is a danger in classifying too much information.

"People also need to see that national security can be adversely impacted if information is improperly hoarded," Leonard said.

The 12-page Openthegovernment.org report also found:

The Bush administration has invoked a legal tool called the "state secrets privilege" to keep federal court hearings and documents from public scrutiny 33 times more often than federal officials did during the height of the Cold War.

Requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act has quadrupled over the last six years to more than 4 million in 2004, far outpacing the government's resources to handle those requests.

Nearly two-thirds of the 7,045 federal advisory committee meetings last year were closed to the public, undermining the thrust of the legislation that created the committees 33 years ago to provide open scientific and technical advice to the government.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 1,754 requests from law enforcement officials last year to conduct surveillance on foreign nationals within the United States. That is almost double the number it issued four years ago. The secret court approved all of the requests, according to the report.

The federal government imposed a secrecy order on 124 new patents last year.

"The report documents an alarming increase in secrecy that can really smother Democracy," said Paul K. McMasters, ombudsman at the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum based in Virginia.

The report shows that the nation is fast becoming a more secretive society and that should ring alarm bells across the country, he said.

"The report is an indictment of government officials who are desperate to control Americans through controlling information," McMasters said.

He said the tight control puts the public's health and safety in jeopardy because people won't know if there is something it should protect itself from.

"In many cases, there is little you can know about it and therefore little that you can do about it," McMasters said. "This signals a real democratic breakdown."