Sunday, March 11, 2007

40th year of law falls in period of secrecy

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.
This 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.
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 OpenTheGovern 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, OpenTheGovern's director. "I'm not sure if it's unprecedented, but it is one of the most secretive administrations in recent history."
On the state level, the Associated Press conducted a survey of all 50 states and found that though laws in every state say government records and meetings must be open to all, reality often falls far short: Laws are sporadically enforced, penalties for failure to comply are mild and violators almost always walk away with nothing more than a reprimand.
Advocates for open government say public trust is at the heart of our democracy, that scrutiny keeps officials honest, and that information is the foundation of informed debate.
"We're in an era, clearly, where there's a lot of distrust in government," said Bill Chamberlin of the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida. "The more the public officials are open in their conversation and show the documentation that they're basing decisions on, it's going to help the public have faith in what officials are doing."
The AP analysis found that nearly all states have crafted penalties for those who violate sunshine laws, but the majority do little to keep track of how often the law is broken and what the punishment might be.
By William Douglas

No comments: