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Study: Government Getting Good at Keeping Secrets from the Public

September 4, 2007

Helena, MT – In the game of keeping government secrets "secret," a new report finds the government is winning. The report examines the complex system used by state and local governments to keep information from public view, versus information attained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. It concludes that the "rate of secrecy" has increased over the past year.

Report coauthor Patrice McDermott, with OpenTheGovernment.org, found Montanans and others across the country have become savvier at using FOIA requests to shine a light on government, and that the number of such requests is up seven percent.

"The bad news is that the government agencies continue to fall way behind on processing and meeting those requests for public information."

McDermott adds Montana recently passed "secrecy" legislation, which she favors because she says it helps local agencies prepare public health responses in the event of emergencies. However, she says governments are also using the legislation to secretly award contracts or gather information on innocent citizens. That, she says, goes too far.

"It undermines trust in government, and it undermines our sense of ourselves as an open people who hold their government accountable."

As an example of sluggish government response time, the report mentions one public information request that has been waiting 20 years for an answer. The report also cites the use of an estimated 200,000 "National Security Letters" to gain access to citizens' private and business records without court approval, as one of the top secrecy-related concerns. The information gathered, according to the report, includes some innocent citizens, and can be kept on file indefinitely. The exact number of letters is among the details not being released to the public.

The full report can be viewed at http://www.openthegovernment.org.

Deborah Smith/Eric Mack, Public News Service - MT