Thursday, January 03, 2008

Increased transparency -- or not

On Monday, President Bush signed a bill that purports to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, by improving response time to FOIA requests and changing the rules agencies use to decide what is secret and what isn't -- with a bias toward "not secret."

The legislation creates a system for the media and public to track the status of their FOIA requests. It establishes a hot line service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.

The law also restores a presumption of a standard that orders government agencies to release information on request unless there is a finding that disclosure could do harm.

Trouble is, it apparently does no such thing.

The new law makes several constructive procedural changes in the FOIA to encourage faster agency response times, to enable requesters to track the status of their requests, to expand the basis for fee waivers, and more.

One thing it does not do, however, is alter the criteria for secrecy and disclosure. Whatever records that a government agency was legally entitled to withhold before enactment of the "OPEN Government Act" can still be withheld now that the President has signed it....

The widely-published AP account continued, "The legislation is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the 9/11 attacks in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security."

But that is incorrect.

Although the original House version of the OPEN Government Act did include a provision that would have repealed the Ashcroft policy and established a "presumption of openness," that provision was removed from the bill prior to passage.

Oops. Turns out the bill is mostly light and noise, signifying nothing. Score one for style over substance.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh sure....cause we all know that American citizens really, really, really want vital information released when there is uncertainty about how doing so would affect our national security.


1/05/2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Believe it or not, most people want their government to be open, not secretive. Unnecessary classification and excessive secrecy are known, longstanding problems. Your concern about security is unfounded, given that even the original version of the law allows truly sensitive information to be kept secret. All it did was force agencies to justify doing so -- which is exactly as it should be.

1/07/2008 9:47 AM  

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