2011 Secrecy Report: A Broad Survey of Transparency
Last week, OpentheGovernment.org, a pro-transparency group, released their annual report on government secrecy. The 2011 Secrecy Report presents a wide breadth of information regarding government transparency. The report recalls and expands upon many of the items discussed in the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey including aggregate FOIA data, cost of FOIA, and backlogs. We are interested in seeing what Openthegovernment.org explores beyond the scope of the 2011 Knight Survey and how their results help to expose shortcomings in transparency found in both reports.
FRINFORMSUM has explored a number of issues over the past several months that the report also mentions. The successes and inadequacies of the Department of Justice’s FOIA assessment are reiterated. Additionally, FRINFORMSUM provided a number of updates on high-profile whistleblower cases, the 2011 Secrecy Report succinctly discusses whistleblowers from a quantitative, “just the numbers” perspective without diving into the minutiae of secrecy policy and historical precedent.
Delays in FOIA processing are only peripherally mentioned in the 2011 Knight Report, but OpentheGovernment.org gives the topic a more thorough treatment. Using an online tool called MuckRock, the survey presented FOIA waiting times for five significant agencies. Performance varied across the board when measuring wait times based on the government’s own system for prioritizing requests. The 2011 Knight Survey found evidence that the process of consultations was a source of friction within the FOIA process. Similarly to the current and previous Knight Surveys, OpentheGovernment.org cites existing backlogs, personnel issues, and inadequate resources and systems as likely causes of long wait times.
OpentheGovernment.org tried to dig deeper into what is causing the delays. On MuckRock, they uncovered a request for the administrative notes for the five oldest FOIA/Privacy Act requests at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DIA has yet to fulfill the request with a final response. OpentheGovernment.org claims that these processing notes would shed light on potential problems within FOIA offices.
Even though it contains numerous well-reasoned and researched sections, the 2011 Secrecy Report is not without shortcomings. Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists makes the claim that the decrease in Presidential signing statements is not necessarily a good thing. Signing statements that question the legitimacy of legislation are essentially public declarations of noncompliance; thus, these statements provide transparency for the disposition of the executive branch.
The issue of nuclear transparency is also mentioned in the 2011 Secrecy Report. In two separate stories, FRINFORMSUM has been critical of the direction that nuclear transparency is trending under the Obama administration. OpentheGovernment.org rightly praises the Administration for revealing the size of the nuclear stockpile in May 2010 and releasing an unclassified Nuclear Posture Review. However, the Administration’s record on nuclear transparency is a mix of positive and negative signals and the 2011 Secrecy Report does not adequately address these shortcomings. Two major documents involving nuclear weapons have come out over the past three months that cast doubt on a major shift towards increased transparency. Both the 2011 Department of Defense report on China’s military and the first START fact sheet demonstrate retreats from previous levels of transparency.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings do not overshadow the numerous qualities of this report. The 2011 Secrecy Report addresses a wide range of transparency issues and provides in-depth analysis of several key indicators that have not been explored by other recent transparency surveys.