It’s no secret: There are more government secrets than ever

The number of official government secrets rose to its highest level last year, auditors reported Tuesday, even though President Obama promised that his administration would be the most open and transparent in history.

U.S. officials created more than 92 million classified documents in fiscal 2011, up from 76.5 million the year before, the Information Security Oversight Office said in its annual report. The agency oversees the U.S government’s classification system.

Critics said the numbers show that the classification system is out of control.

“It’s hard to imagine a situation where 92 million is the right number,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“We know, because congressional committees, blue-ribbon panels and experts of every political stripe have told us … that there is massive and routine overclassification,” Ms. Goitein said.

Upon taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama issued an executive order overhauling the classification system to make the government more accountable and end the scourge of overclassification. He also pledged more fundamental changes later in his term.

The results of a review of agency classification procedures and proposals for other reforms he ordered are due this summer.

“The jury is not fully back in yet, but we have some early indications that [the 2009 changes] didn’t go far enough,” Ms. Goitein said.

But officials cautioned against reading too much into their numbers. The 92 million figure might not accurately capture the real extent of government classification, said William A Cira, an associate director in the Information Security Oversight Office.

“It’s a broad estimate,” he said.

Since 2008, when the Information Security Oversight Office asked agencies to start trying to provide figures for classified email and other electronic communications and documents, the numbers for such “derivative classification decisions” have risen by as much as 30 million a year.

Part of that increase might just be agencies finding ways to count new kinds of classified communications, Mr. Cira said.

“It is very difficult to estimate the true extent of classification activity … [owing to] the rapid expansion of the use of electronic tools in the classified domain,” he said.

The 92 million figure includes classified emails, Web pages, blogs, bulletin boards and instant messaging systems that operate on classified computer networks, Mr. Cira said.

Nonetheless, “We think it’s probable that the overall trend line [for classification activity] is up,” he said.

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