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FOIA Reforms Would Reverse Bush-Barriers

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 09:03:43 -0400
Fwd Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 09:03:43 -0400
Subject: FOIA Reforms Would Reverse Bush-Barriers

Source: The Chicago Sun-Times, Illiois, USA


March 12, 2007

Bipartisan FOIA Reforms Would Reverse Bush-Imposed Barriers

By Christine Tatum

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 Wednesday on the Freedom of
Information Act amendments of 2007, which stand to be the most
comprehensive reform of the act in more than a decade. On
Tuesday, 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 Wednesday.

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

Are you thinking that 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.

 - 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 those filing requests to 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
FOIA 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.). Cornyn and Leahy plan to reintroduce the Senate version
of the FOIA reform bill this week.

"The Bush-Cheney administration sent a powerful message
government-wide 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 for
the Denver Post.

[Thanks to Greg Boone for the lead]

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