WASHINGTON—It's been used to reveal how many times disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff visited the White House, to search for previously undisclosed details on President John F. Kennedy's assassination and to aid UFO buffs in their never-ending effort to find out what's really happening in Roswell, N.M.
The Freedom of Information Act, which gives citizens access to federal government files, turns 40 this year. Born during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, FOIA came of age after the Watergate scandal and is a vital tool for individuals, journalists, corporations and academics who seek information that the government may be reluctant to release.
Next week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors observes Sunshine Week to celebrate FOIA and promote the need for open government and freedom of information. This comes amid the Bush administration's drive to withhold documents, records and other information from public view.
"As a matter of policy, they are more secretive," said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative nonpartisan group that fights for government transparency. "They just say no, which undermines the spirit and letter of FOIA."
The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law on July 4, 1966, and went into effect the next year. It allows for full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the federal government, with nine exemptions for national security, personnel information, trade secrets and other limited categories.
The use of FOIA is closely associated with journalism; news outlets have filed FOIA requests in high-profile stories such as the disputed 2000 presidential election. But journalists account for only a small percentage of FOIA requests. The bulk of them come from academics, advocacy groups and businesses, which use the act for research, to gain information on competitors or to promote their causes.
FOIA requests by private citizens and groups led the Pentagon to reverse its policies and release photos of flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of American soldiers who'd been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq as they arrived at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.
Fitton's Judicial Watch has filed more than 400 FOIA requests since 1994. Last year, it filed one that forced the Secret Service to release logs detailing how many times Abramoff had visited the White House. It also won the release of film footage of one of the hijacked jetliners crashing into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Those who believe in alien life forms have used FOIA to try to pry open National Security Agency files on Roswell, citing a famous UFO "crash" in 1947 that U.S. military officials said was really a weather balloon.
"FOIA is an essential tool for citizens to find out what their government is doing," Fitton said.
He and others say monitoring the government has gotten harder under President Bush. A report last year by a bipartisan group called OpenTheGovernment.org indicated that the federal government spent $7.7 billion in 2005 to mark documents secret. The same year, citizens filed 2.7 million requests for government records and materials through FOIA, an increase of 65,000 requests over the previous year, according to the same report.
"They are quite secretive. Most of it is their own predilection; some of it is the result of Sept. 11," said Patrice McDermott, OpenTheGovernment.org's director. "I'm not sure if it's unprecedented, but it is one of the most secretive administrations in recent history."
Shortly after taking office, Bush issued an executive order giving current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold or delay releasing presidential records. In October 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft revoked former Attorney General Janet Reno's 1993 Freedom of Information directive, which encouraged agencies to make "discretionary disclosures" of information whenever possible.
Ashcroft's directive advised against releasing information when there's uncertainty about whether FOIA exemptions—such as national security—apply.
"Ashcroft said the person who wants the information has to prove the information is in the person's interest," said Anna Nelson, a history professor at American University in Washington. "That set the tone for the Bush administration."
Last May, the Secret Service and the Bush administration signed a deal that makes White House visitor logs presidential records instead of agency records and therefore not subject to FOIA.
White House officials insist that they're information-friendly. Bush signed an executive order in 2005 that directed federal agencies to be more efficient in dealing with requests for information. It told agencies to streamline their processing of FOIA requests and to appoint senior officials to monitor FOIA compliance.
The president issued the order without rescinding the Ashcroft directive.
Hoping to get the White House to open up, the House Oversight and
Government Reform Committee on Thursday began considering a proposal from committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that would nullify Bush's executive order.
In addition, it began weighing a FOIA bill that essentially would return the criteria for releasing government information to the standards set in Reno's directive.
Lawmakers also are searching for a way to ensure that FOIA requests are handled more quickly. Some take weeks; others take years. AU professor Nelson said she was still waiting for the outcome of a FOIA request that she'd filed in 2002 for records regarding President Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the State Department.
"FOIA is clogged," she said. "The (National) Archives doesn't have the manpower to process these things."
Melanie Ann Pustay, the acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, told Waxman's committee that it was difficult for the federal government to keep up with the large number of FOIA requests because of the high volume of documents that had to be reviewed.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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