Friday, September 23, 2005

Peek-a-Boo President

Faking it for the photogs
Project Censored has released its annual survey of “The News That Didn’t Make the News.” Atop their list is an under-reported story about under-reporting: Karen Lightfoot’s investigation of the Bush administration’s quiet efforts to cloak the government in secrecy and disembowel the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that once provided citizens with a measure of access to government secrets.

FOIA, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, enshrined the public's right to review federal documents. It has since become the victim of a government that would rather veil its operations from the people it's meant to serve.

Lightfoot writes: “the Bush Administration simply fails to respond to FOIA requests at all. Whether this is simply an inordinate delay or an unstated final refusal to respond to the request, the requesting party is never told. But the effect is the same: the public is denied access to the information.”

This issue came to my attention soon after the Armstrong Williams scandal broke at the beginning of the year. Williams was the center of a media controversy when USA Today discovered that his frequent TV appearances -- posing as an objective journalist touting Bush policies -- were, in fact, paid for by the White House. Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) fired off FOIA requests to 22 federal agencies, seeking official evidence of similar "payola pundit" arrangements between the executive branch and PR firms. She faces an uphill challenge, though, as the Bush administration has thrown up a bureaucratic maze.

A Sept 2005 report by found that the government continues to expand secrecy across a broad array of government action. Perhaps most alarming, the report describes at least 50 types of designations the government now uses to restrict unclassified information deemed “sensitive but unclassified.”

"Many of these numerous terms are duplicative, vague, and endanger the protection of necessary secrets by allowing excessive secrecy to prevail in our open society," according to the report

In their 2004 annual survey, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) provide a rundown of actions taken by public officials to turn basic government information into state secrets. RCFP executive director Lucy Dalglish says that many Bush administration actions were designed to undermine the Act.

Since September 11, 2001, rollbacks to access have included striking the release of names of terrorism-suspect detainees to library information on bodies of water.

For government eyes only
The change in attitude can be traced straight to the top, as seen in the policy statement released by Attorney General John Ashcroft in October 2001 that has come to be known as "The Ashcroft Memorandum." Dalglish writes: "A month and a day after the events of September 11, [Ashcroft] revoked what had been a seemingly permissive Clinton-era Freedom of Information Act instruction to federal agencies. He issued his own: a hard-nosed missive that promised agencies that if there were any 'sound legal basis' for withholding information from FOIA requesters, the Justice Department would support the withholding."

"The memorandum emboldened federal agencies in using exemptions more often and to use other tactics to prevent FOIA requests from being fulfilled," Says James Benton, Legislative Representative for public advocacy group Common Cause. Now some FOIA requests can take up to ten years to be fulfilled, Benton says.

Dalglish and her journalist members hoped that the government's post-September 11 move toward non-disclosure would be viewed as temporary or emergency measures: "Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Led by secrecy-loving officials in the executive branch, secrecy in the United States government is now the norm."

Since President Bush entered office, there has been a more than 75% increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year. Based upon information collected by the Information Security Oversight Office, the total number of classification decisions increased from 9 million in FY 2001 to 11 million in FY 2002, 14 million in FY 2003 and 16 million in FY 2004."

"Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone un-enumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases," writes Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Recently, there have been some encouraging signs that FOIA might get back some teeth. On Feb. 16, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the OPEN Government Act to force agencies to pay legal costs in more cases when faced with a lawsuit over improperly withheld records.

The bill, S. 394, would also make the federal Freedom of Information Act easier to use when the public seeks documents from government. It would make several changes in the way the government handles FOIA requests, including creating an ombudsperson to review agency responses to FOIA requests, and establishing a tracking system for the public to check the status of requests. The House version is H.R. 867.

"[The Act] is one way to undo some of the damage caused by the 'Ashcroft Memorandum,'" Benton says. More public support of the legislation could push it through.


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