2011 Secrecy Report Sees Signs of Openness

The latest annual report on secrecy (pdf) from the pro-transparency coalition Openthegovernment.org finds some positive signs of increasing openness amidst a continuing expansion of secret government.

“We are not as yet at the level of ‘unprecedented transparency’ the Obama Administration promises, but we are beginning to see signs that at least some of the Administration’s openness efforts are paying off,” said Patrice McDermott, coalition director and co-author of the annual report with Amy Bennett and Abby Paulson.

For example, the report noted that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) backlogs government-wide were reduced by 10% in Fiscal Year 2010 compared to FY 2009.

The new annual report conveniently gathers all or most of the available quantitative measures of secrecy.  By doing so, however, it also highlights the inadequacy of such data.

Some of the measures are ambiguous, as in the observation that the number of “signing statements” issued by President Obama to challenge the legitimacy of newly enacted legislation is lower than that of other recent presidents.  The report praises this reduction.  But signing statements that publicly declare Administration non-compliance with legislation can easily be understood as signs of “openness,” even if they are unwelcome, since they explicitly signal executive branch attitudes and actions.

Many other measures of secrecy, including the volume of classification activity, convey almost no meaningful information.  They are vaguely descriptive of the constant churning of the classification system, but they fail to provide any basis for evaluation.  Is there too much secrecy?  too little?  just the right amount?  Anyone may have an opinion, but the quantitative data on secrecy gathered by the government provide no basis for reaching a firm judgment.  The data simply lack any kind of Figure of Merit that would allow one to distinguish legitimate national security secrecy from its spurious kin.  The failure to generate and provide meaningful metrics of secrecy is a serious impediment not only to public accountability, but also to proper management of the classification system.

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