Watchdog groups say government secrecy has dipped but still near high

Sunday, September 3, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials unsealed more classified documents in 2005 but shrouded data elsewhere by claiming more legal privileges in court, a coalition of watchdog groups reported Saturday.

The study by shows modest improvement from record 2004 levels in which Americans were kept in the dark about information they should be able to access. Overall government secrecy remained high compared to previous years, it said.

Federal agencies spent $134 creating and storing new secrets for each $1 spent to declassify old secrets. That's down from the record $148 in 2004, but up from the $17-to-$1 ratio spent in 2000.

Overall, the number of pages declassified in 2005 was 29.5 million, up 1.1 million from the previous year, to post the first increase in five years. Still, the figure was significantly lower than the 75 million documents unsealed in 2000, the year before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The government stamped 14.2 million documents "top secret," "secret" or "confidential" at a cost of $7.7 billion, compared to a record 15.6 million documents sealed in 2004.

"Every administration wants to control information about its policies and practices, but the current administration has restricted access to information about our government and its policies at unprecedented levels," said Patrice McDermott, director of

"How can the public or even Congress make informed decisions under such circumstances?" she asked.

In the study, the watchdog coalition found greater assertions of executive power by the Bush administration, using the "state secrets" privilege successfully in court to keep information secret on national security grounds.

It invoked the privilege 22 times from 2001-July 2005, an average of four per year that is almost as high as the average in the previous 24 years. At the height of the Cold War, presidential administrations used the privilege just six times between 1953 and 1976.

The report also found that President Bush issued 132 signing statements claiming exceptions to 810 provisions of federal laws he had just signed, compared to 600 signing statements in the 211 years of U.S. history preceding 2000. The watchdog group said the statements, which an American Bar Association panel has said violate the Constitution, create public confusion.

Other findings:

* Classified or "black" programs account for 17 percent of this year's Pentagon budget of $315.5 billion, down slightly from 18 percent in 2005.

* The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- which oversees requests for government surveillance of people within the United States -- approved all 2,072 requests for secret surveillance orders, up 18 percent from the year before.

McDermott urged more public disclosure and accountability with closer oversight by Congress as well as bills to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

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