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For the past few years, Americans have lived with an increasingly secret government. More official documents are being classified than ever before -- more than 16 million last year alone while the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed to a relative crawl. And Federal agencies are creating new categories of "semi-secrets ", bearing vague labels like "sensitive security information."

This increasing secrecy, which accelerated sharply after attacks of September 11th 2001, is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $8 billion annually and is drawing protests from a growing array of politicians and activists, including Republican members of Congress, leaders of the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks and even the top federal official who oversees classification.

Meanwhile, requests for these documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are at an all-time high, and the government is taking ever-longer to respond or claiming exemptions on grounds of national security and not responding at all. The FOIA law was enacted in 1968 to provide greater access to government documents.

Yet even in this opaque environment, the U.S. Government is still far more transparent than most. And much of the credit goes to two Federal agencies the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Inspectors General (IGs), who operate in virtually all major government departments.

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According to Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), "Both organizations often have a direct impact on particular policies and programs, and play a vital role in nourishing public awareness. "

Aftergood is part of a smallish group of non-governmental agencies that watch the watchdogs. He told IPS, "Both sets of organizations routinely 'make news ' and help to inform public debate. "

In this, the first of two articles, we report on the GAO.

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Created by Congress in 1921, GAO is independent of the executive branch of government. According to Jeff Ruch, who heads another of the "watchdog watcher " organizations, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), "On a monthly basis, GAO uncovers more problems within executive agencies than all the IGs combined do in a year. "

He says, "While GAO is a creature of Congress, that oversight goes to what it examines and the size of its budget. We have never heard of a draft GAO report watered down by Congressional intervention. "

With a staff of 3,200 and an annual budget of $463.6 million, the GAO is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States (CG), currently David M. Walker, who came to the job with extensive government and private sector experience.

In an effort to de-politicize its operations and ensure continuity, the CG is appointed by the President for a term of ten years; the current CG was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

GAO 's mission is to help improve the performance and assure the accountability of the federal government. Last year it testified 217 times before Congress, and over the past four years has made 2,700 recommendations for improving government operations 83 per cent of which have been implemented. It claims its work in 2004 saved taxpayers $44 billion

Because of its size and huge budget, the Defense Department has been a frequent target of GOA criticism. This year, it charged that thePentagon was spending over $13 billion to maintain and buy often duplicative business software and computer systems. In another report, it said that over the last three years, the Pentagon disposed of $33 billion in 'excess ' equipment for pennies on the dollar. Some $4 billion of this equipment was reported to be in new, unused, or excellent condition. In yet another report, the GAO blasted the Pentagon for its "atrocious financial management," saying the Defense Department was not able to give federal oversight officials a full accounting of the $1 billion being spent each week on the war in Iraq.

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"If the Department of Defense were a business, they'd be out of business," said GAO boss Walker. "They have absolutely atrocious financial management."

GAO also reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the public from tens of thousands of toxic compounds because it has not gathered data on the health risks of most industrial chemicals

It criticized the Office of Management and Budget for weaknesses in its security reporting guidance and reported deficiencies in the information security policies and practices at 24 of the largest federal agencies. -- putting financial data at risk of unauthorized modification or destruction, and putting sensitive information at risk of inappropriate disclosure.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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