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Project on Government Oversight

Government Secrecy

POGO strongly believes that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that we must empower citizens with information and tools to hold their government accountable. In many cases, POGO finds that the decision to remove a document from public access has less to do with matters of national security, and more to do with hiding corruption, intentional wrongdoing, or gross mismanagement. POGO’s Government Secrecy Investigations are aimed at preventing corruption and other misconduct in the federal government by encouraging insiders and whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing, increasing the ways that citizens can participate in their government, and improving citizen and journalist access to government documents and information. POGO has been working extensively on the White House’s Open Government Directive.  Click on the program areas below to learn more. 
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a vital tool that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased government documents.  In POGO’s experience, however, there are many problems with the FOIA process, such as backlogs and delays in responding to FOIA requests, a widespread hesitation to put documents online, an overly prohibitive interpretation of the law that favors secrecy over transparency, and more.  The FOIA process should be improved and expedited so that citizens and journalists have the tools they need to investigate the government’s activities and hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions.
Information Access
The emergence of new technologies has created new opportunities and challenges for government record-keeping and information access.  The recent public outrage over the loss of White House email records underscores the importance of ensuring public access to government information online.  POGO is concerned about private corporations gaining exclusive control to records that have traditionally been in the public domain.  The government should make all Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, and agency audits available online to the public, redacting any information that would jeopardize national security or violate proprietary or private information.
Open Government
POGO believes that increased transparency will result in a more accountable and responsive federal government, and will help to restore public confidence in our elected and appointed officials.  POGO is committed to making contracting, spending, and budget information more transparent, forcing congressional committees to post their votes online, and preserving electronic records, among other issues.  
POGO believes that excessive secrecy makes the federal government less accountable and is often detrimental to public health, safety, and security.  POGO's investigations have exposed, for instance, the illegal burning of toxic chemicals at Area 51, despite the government’s insistence that the super secret facility did not exist.  In recent years, the number of classification decisions made by the federal government has doubled, from eight million in 2001 to over 14 million in 2005.  POGO will continue to investigate cases of overclassification with hopes of making the federal government more transparent and responsive.  
In the aftermath of 9/11, POGO has observed that many agencies in the federal government label documents with markings such as "Sensitive But Unclassified."  This type of pseudo-classification restricts public access to disclosable documents and interferes with information sharing between government agencies.  POGO fought, for instance, to make information on pre-9/11 aviation security standards classified as "Sensitive Security Information" available to the public, especially to the families of 9/11 victims.  As the federal government issues new rules and regulations on "Controlled Unclassified Information," POGO will continue to expose the abuse of pseudo-classification by agency officials and to promote the virtues of open government.

Retroactive Classification and State Secrets Privilege: Sibel Edmonds Case Study
While working as a translator at the FBI, Sibel Edmonds blew the whistle on numerous instances of corruption, misconduct, and cover-ups.  Even though the FBI and Inspector General confirmed many of her allegations, Edmonds was fired and has faced a protracted legal battle ever since.  In 2005, POGO successfully sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice for retroactively classifying information related to Edmonds' case.