Steps forward, steps backward.
The federal government has taken some of both in the past year with regard to secrecy, according to the annual report by the Washington-based information advocacy coalition OpenTheGovernment.org.
Some the steps forward include the fact that the government processed more Freedom of Information Act requests in 2011 than the previous year. And the average cost of fulfilling a FOIA request went down by more than $2.
The amount that the federal government spends on gathering intelligence is now public for the first time ever. In previous years, federal officials had said giving out even so much as a dollar figure for the expense would harm American interests.
And even though Congress had forced the release of only the amount spent on non-military intelligence, the Pentagon voluntarily released what the military spends, too, the OpenTheGovernment report says.
Meanwhile, President Obama is being stingy with signing statements on bills -- the presidential equivalent of signing a bill into law but adding a postscript at the bottom that says, "I'll sign this but I don't like this, this or that about it." (It's kind of like sending a Valentine's Day card to your sweetie and writing, "I love you," but then signing it and adding "P.S., I still want to see other people.") Obama has done just 19 signing statements so far, compared with 100-plus for President Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush.
But there were steps backward, too. While Uncle Sam was pushing those FOIA requests out the door faster, there were a lot more requests filed in 2011, and the overall federal FOIA backlog went up by about one-fifth.
The amount spent on intelligence -- those wonderful new numbers we've never had access to before -- turned out to be $72 billion. That's a lot of money. It's as much as the entire federal budget deficit for this past July. And it's as much as the entire annual value of Afghanistan's opium trade, according to a recent estimate from the Afghan government.
And while President Obama has kept his lifetime career stats low on invoking executive privilege to Congress -- his single invocation of it in that context puts him on par numerically with Presidents Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush -- that one time was a doozy: It was regarding federal authorities' controversial "Fast and Furious" investigation into gun trafficking, and that invocation of the privilege paved the way for the House to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the first time in U.S. history that's happened to a sitting AG.
Meanwhile, the report says, it's still really hard to tell how much secrecy there is -- quoting Donald Rumsfeld that we don't know what we don't know.
You can see some of the major points of the report in the accompanying graphic (click on the version at top-right to see it larger, or you can see the full-size version below), and you can read the complete report from OpenTheGovernment at this link. You can also take part in a Twitter chat with the authors from 4-5 p.m. Tuesday using hashtag #secrecy12.
Jennifer Peebles is the Washington Examiner's data editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter at @DCPeebles.Chat with the authors of OpenTheGovernment.org's 2012 secrecy report via Twitter, 4-5 p.m. Tuesday. Use the hashtag #secrecy12.