Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If Bush thinks it's bad... it must be good.

In my journalism classes, I stress the importance of open records and require all of my students to file at least one request per semester. Secrecy, however, has been the rule at the Bush White House, and a campaign has been waged to diminish FOIA -- the federal open records act -- and to encourage officials to ignore, delay, and deny requests. The issue is so important that I include here, in full, an upate on an attempt to strengthen FOIA.

From the National Security Archive:

House Poised to Pass FOIA Reform Bill

Bill Provides “Common Sense” Solutions for Openness Problems:
Penalties for Delays, Tracking Systems for Requests,
Ombuds-style Office to Mediate Disputes, Better Agency Reporting

Reforms Recommended by Archive Audits and Testimony

Washington, DC, December 18, 2007 – The House of Representatives will vote today on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform bill (S. 2488) that passed the Senate by unanimous consent on December 14. The bill aims to fix some of the most persistent problems in the FOIA system, including excessive delay, lack of responsiveness, and litigation gamesmanship by federal agencies. If passed by the House today, it will be sent to the President’s desk for approval.

“Our six government-wide audits of FOIA performance show that these bipartisan changes to the Freedom of Information Act are common sense solutions,” remarked Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive. “This bill establishes tracking systems for FOIA requests like FedEx uses for packages, actually penalizes agencies for the first time for delays that our audits found could reach 20 years, and sets up an office to mediate disputes as an alternative to litigation.”

The bill in front of the House today represents a bipartisan effort that has stretched over several years, spearheaded by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), the original co-sponsors of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA). Efforts to amend the FOIA have faced stumbling blocks in part because of strong administration opposition to passage of earlier versions of this FOIA reform bill in both the House and the Senate.

“This is the bill that President Bush wrote an executive order to try to prevent,” said Tom Blanton, director of the Archive, referring to E.O. 13392 (December 14, 2005), which called for a “citizen-centered and results-oriented approach” to FOIA, established Chief FOIA Officers at each of 92 major agencies, and required agencies to evaluate their FOIA programs and draft improvement plans.

The new law would mandate tracking numbers for FOIA requests that take longer than 10 days to process to ensure they will no longer fall through the cracks, require agencies to report more accurately to Congress and the public on their FOIA programs, create a new ombuds office at the National Archives to mediate conflicts between agencies and requesters, clarify the purpose of FOIA to encourage dissemination of government information, and provide incentives to agencies to avoid litigation and processing delays.

“Congress is acting to improve the FOIA for the first time in more than a decade, since the electronic FOIA amendments of 1996, but Congressional and public oversight will be essential for the law’s success,” Blanton noted. “Our Knight Open Government Survey in 2007 found that only one in five federal agencies fully complied with the 1996 law, even after 10 years of implementation.”