March 16, 2006
Forty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a landmark law that opened the government’s records to public scrutiny. FOIA allows ordinary citizens to request public documents from their government and hold it accountable. Yet now in its 40th year, FOIA — and open government — is under attack. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has stalled or ignored an increased number of FOIA requests, classified a record number of documents, stepped up punishment for whistleblowers and tightened secrecy in the name of national security. From refusing to release information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay, to keeping lawmakers and the public in the dark about an illegal, warrantless domestic wiretapping program, “The administration’s preference for secrecy is less about winning the war on terrorism than simply avoiding public scrutiny.”
- The administration has actively worked to make less information available. In 2004, the American public made over four million FOIA requests (PDF), a 25 percent jump from the previous year. However, the Bush administration increased FOIA funding by only five percent in 2005 and by the end of 2004, the government had 147,810 FOIA requests pending, a 24 percent increase over the previous year. And the administration was planning to restrict information prior to 9/11. In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo — in the works long before the 9/11 attacks — assuring government agencies that, “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records ... you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.”
- The government is spending money to keep information classified and is declassifying significantly less information. Keeping information secret is expensive; declassifying a document costs only $1 (PDF). Maintaining a classified document costs $148. Classifying a new document costs $460. The Bush administration has shown that they’re willing to spend a lot of money to keep information quiet. In 2004, the Bush administration classified a record 15.6 million documents — 81 percent more than before 9/11 — and spent $7.2 billion securing its secret information, “more than any annual cost in at least a decade.”
- The Bush administration is also finding new ways to crack down on whistle-blowers and leaks. The administration has recently come under criticism for cracking down on leaks by putting in place “initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources” and by prohibiting government officials from “discussing even unclassified issues related to the NSA [spying] program.” John Dean, President Nixon’s legal counsel during the Watergate scandal, called President Bush and Vice President Cheney “a throwback to the Nixon time,” and even Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary, recently admitted that “This administration is more secretive.”
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