Public deserves document disclosure

By Christine Tatum: Guest columnist

This week promises to be a big one in the never-ending fight to improve access to federal government records.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote today on the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007, which stand to be the most comprehensive reform of the Freedom of Information Act in more than a decade. Also this week, a bipartisan-backed Senate version of the reform bill — which mirrors the House proposal, lobbyists say — is scheduled for introduction. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to conduct a hearing on the measure today.

FOIA, as it is commonly called, is one of the most powerful tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of their government. The act has been revised several times since its passage almost 41 years ago, but its gist remains the same: The public benefits when government conducts its business in the open.

Think journalists are the only ones bothering with government documents? Think again. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analyzed 6,439 FOIA requests to 11 Cabinet-level departments and six large agencies in September 2005.

The review found that more than 60 percent of the requests came from commercial interests, with one-fourth of those filed by professional data brokers working on behalf of clients wanting information such as asbestos levels on old Navy ships and background data on prospective employees. The second largest group of requesters — categorized as “other” and composed mostly of private citizens — comprised a third of the total number of requests. Those people included a movie producer doing research for a film about Guantanamo Bay, a divorcee searching for hidden assets, UFO enthusiasts seeking evidence of alien visitations, a lawyer trying to find parents overdue on child support payments and genealogists digging up family roots.

“Media” requests accounted for only 6 percent of the total.

Given the public’s appetite for government records and federal agencies’ notorious request-backlogs and stonewalling, even congressional lawmakers realize something must be done. The House bill wouldn’t affect exemptions, such as national security and privacy, that allow the government to withhold documents — but it sure would change the way government handles FOIA requests. Among the specific reforms, the bill would:

• Pressure agencies to respond to requests in a timely manner. Agencies failing to meet the 20-working-day deadline would have to waive search and copying fees.
n Require agencies to set up FOIA hotlines and tracking systems that help the public follow up on requests.

• Create an independent ombudsman post within the National Archives to help requesters resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.

• Make it easier for requesters to recover attorney fees when litigation is unavoidable.

If approved, the bill also would reverse draconian policy established and staunchly backed by the Bush administration.

In 2001, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal officials to look for legal grounds on which to deny FOI requests rather than to presume the public has the right to the information it seeks. In 2005, President Bush issued an executive order requiring agencies to take several steps aimed at streamlining the handling of FOIA requests — but he let Ashcroft’s edict stand.

The timing of the president’s order was interesting given that bipartisan support was building for a much more stringent act proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

“The Bush-Cheney administration sent a powerful message governmentwide with the Ashcroft policy in 2001,” Leahy said shortly after the president’s order. “The policy says, in effect, ‘When in doubt, don’t disclose, and the Justice Department will support your denials in court.’ It undermines FOIA’s purpose, which is to facilitate the public’s right to know the facts, not the government’s ability to hide them.”

When reacting to Bush’s order, Cornyn, a GOPer from the president’s home state, chose his words more carefully. “More remains to be done to ensure that American citizens have access to the information they need and deserve,” he said.

The president’s order has amounted to little more than window dressing, which is hardly a surprise given its Ashcroft underpinning. It’s time for Congress to step in and ensure the timely release of public documents — perhaps in the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln who said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”

Christine Tatum is national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant business editor at The Denver Post. Contact her at
ctatum@spj.org