Transparent as mud

September 19, 2005

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT is an open system - except when it's not. And it's not with appalling and increasing frequency. That's wrong; Americans deserve and should demand access to the workings of their government.

The administration, Congress or the federal courts stamped some 15.6 million new documents "confidential," "secret" or "top secret" in 2004; a mere four years earlier, they hid 8.5 million documents. (CIA documents are not included in the count because even reporting the number is classified.) Meanwhile, the number of documents unclassified each year has continued to plummet: from 100 million pages in 2001 to 28.4 million in 2004, according to a report released late last month by openthegovernment.com, a bipartisan coalition of media and government watchdog groups.

Using such never-defined terms as "critical infrastructure information," "limited official use," "operations security protected" and "sensitive," legislators and agency officials are shuffling more papers into the shadows. The director of the National Archives' office that monitors classification says no one in government knows all the different codes of classification or can describe the rules for them.

While there surely are some documents, some meetings, some court proceedings and some patents that touch on national security and must be secret, there surely are not 15.6 million of them - or even 8.5 million. "Sensitive" does not mean "might embarrass an official." Among the most-requested documents that were not unsealed last year are a list of contaminants found in certain sources of drinking water, an accounting of court cases partially or totally closed to the public, a list of gifts from lobbyists to senators and their staffs and an accounting of the total dollar value of federal contracts and grants. None of that information would aid terrorists or foreign agents; all of it would help Americans understand where their tax money and federal agencies' time are being spent and make better decisions about how to run their government.

Besides being unnecessary, this penchant for secrecy costs a lot of money - $7.2 billion last year, up from $4.7 billion in 2001. We can think of plenty of better things on which to spend the money.

Secrets cause people to feel less, not more, secure. Americans should not have to spend their time and money begging for information they are legally entitled to have.

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