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Congressmen, groups push for more openness in government

WASHINGTON—Criticizing growing secrecy in government, two key senators and some groups across the political spectrum are pushing a bill to make it easier to get information from federal agencies and make them more accountable.

At a hearing Tuesday, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said their bill would force government agencies to be more responsive to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which requires federal agencies to turn over documents promptly except when they can justify withholding them.

Such requests had increased to 2.3 million annually by 2003, but the release of information from most federal departments, from Justice to Agriculture, has declined since 1998, according to an Associated Press survey to which lawmakers referred.

The same trend applies to classification and declassification of federal documents. The number of pages classified went from 6.5 million annually in 1995 to 14 million in 2003, the latest fiscal year for which numbers are available. Pages declassified dropped from 204 million annually to 43 million in the same period, according to the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office.

Security concerns since the 2001 terrorist attacks have accelerated a trend toward closing off information about health and safety records that the public should know, Leahy said.

Their bill would speed up the process for responding to information requests, create an online tracking system for each request and penalize foot-dragging by federal agencies. An ombudsman would monitor the system.

"Openness in government is not a Republican or Democratic issue," Cornyn said. "Any party in power is always reluctant to share information, out of an understandable—albeit unpersuasive—fear of arming its enemies and critics."

Cornyn enforced open-government laws as Texas attorney general before he was elected to the Senate in 2002. Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, authored legislation that updated access rules for the Internet in 1996, the last significant change to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act.

Cornyn is hopeful that the Senate will pass the bill as a noncontroversial bipartisan measure.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, the Internet and intellectual property, introduced a House of Representatives counterpart to the Senate bill last month.

A senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Lisa Graves, and a leader of the conservative Heritage Foundation research center, Mark Tapscott, said there was a strong need to improve open-government laws.

"I'm hoping members of Congress who consider themselves conservative will pay particular attention to this," said Tapscott, who heads Heritage's Center for Media and Public Policy.

"This bill can be an effective resource in fighting waste, fraud and abuse," he added.

Under the current system, members of the public face long delays in getting information, although the AP survey found that the Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs Department—the recipients of most requests—had become more responsive.

Reporters, businesses and organizations such as the ACLU face drawn-out, expensive litigation if they want to pursue information requests, Graves said.

The ACLU sought information from the Defense Department about the treatment of prisoners in 2003, but made little headway until a 2004 lawsuit and favorable rulings from a judge pried loose thousands of documents that detailed cases of abuse.

A Knight Ridder investigation into the performance of the Veterans Affairs Department yielded documents showing that regional offices awarded disability checks at different rates only after the media company sued the VA.

Media organizations such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, of which Knight Ridder is a member, are among the groups backing the legislation. So are government policy-research groups such as the National Security Archive.

The general public and businesses file the most Freedom of Information requests, followed by journalists. Tapscott, a former reporter, said the relatively low proportion of journalists reflected pessimism among reporters about timely and productive responses to their requests.

He said he'd heard "variations of this theme" from many reporters: "It wastes too much time, and they probably won't disclose what I need without a big legal fight, which my newspaper can't afford, so why bother?"

Walter Mears, a retired Associated Press bureau chief in Washington, testified at Tuesday's hearing that agency officials sometimes used "overdone secrecy" to "conceal embarrassing information, mismanagement or wrongdoing."

"Newspeople are the highest-profile advocates" of the Freedom of Information Act, Mears said.

"Most requests do not come from us at all, but from veterans or retirees," he added. "That fact is worth emphasizing because it makes the case that access to information is best for everyone."

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050211 FOIA declassify, 20050211 FOIA requests, 20050211 FOI process

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