Barack Obama came to office promising a new era of transparency in government. What he has delivered is something closer to the opposite, a new analysis from the Associated Press makes plain: the most secretive presidency in American history. And it's worse now than when his presidency began.
According to the Associated Press analysis, which covers 99 federal agencies over six years, the Obama administration censored more documents and delayed or denied access to more government files than ever before. In 2013, the administration cited national security concerns a record 8,496 times as an excuse for withholding information from the public. That’s a 57% increase over the year before and more than double the number in Obama’s first year in office.
At some agencies—like the National Security Agency, which has seen a surge in requests amid the controversy stemming from revelations about mass domestic surveillance—requests for information were almost uniformly denied or heavily censored last year. The NSA blacked out or refused to release records in 98 percent of requests in 2013.
Part of the increase in the federal government's refusals to release information may be due to an uptick last year in requests for information; in 2013, citizens asked the White House to release secret information 704,394 times, an 8% rise from the year before. Under the Freedom of Information Act, known commonly as “FOIA,” any citizen is supposed to be able to request and receive any piece of information from the federal government at little or no cost, unless the release of that information would harm national security or violate the privacy of a person or business. The Obama White House cited such exceptions in denying FOIA requests more times that ever before in 2013: 546,574.
"Generally speaking, increasing secrecy tends to have a corrosive effect," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy with the Federation of American Scientists, a leading organization that follows the issue. "It encourages public cynicism and widens the distance between the public and its government. In a democracy that is unhealthy."
The solution, Aftergood told TIME, is creating more opportunities to challenge official secrecy, like interagency panels and citizen's review boards. "I think it is unrealistic to expect government agencies to voluntarily become more transparent. Openness is not a central part of their mission, and it has financial and operational costs," he said.
In response to the AP investigation, the White House pointed to the data—which includes an increase last year in the number of FOIA requests to which the government responded—as evidence “that agencies are responding to the president’s call for greater transparency.”