Thursday, December 01, 2005

Gutting the Freedom of Information Act

The War on the Press
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) enshrines the public’s right to access government records. In the past five years, FOIA has been gutted by an administration that would rather cloak its operations from public scrutiny.

In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a chilling memorandum advising federal agencies that the Justice Department would defend their decisions to deny FOIA requests.

Many have since taken action to fend off public requests for disclosure. Since President Bush entered office, there has been a more than 75 percent increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year — from 9 million in 2001 to 16 million by 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, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

“Less of a goal-directed policy than a bureaucratic reflex, the widespread clampdown on formerly public information reflects a largely inarticulate concern about ‘security,’” Aftergood writes. “It also accords neatly with the Bush administration’s preference for unchecked executive authority.”

In their 2004 report, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provide a rundown of actions taken by public officials to turn basic government information into state secrets. RCFP executive director Lucy Dalglish wrote that many Bush administration actions in fighting the war against terrorism were designed to undermine FOIA. Dalglish and her journalist members hoped that the government’s post-September 11 move toward non-disclosure on all matters would be viewed as temporary or emergency measures.

“Unfortunately, that has not been the case,” Dalglish reported. “Led by secrecy-loving officials in the executive branch, secrecy in the United States government is now the norm.”

The restrictions have now grown so tight that the American Society of Newspaper Editors last fall issued a “call to arms” to its members, urging them to “demand answers in print and in court” to stop this “deeply disturbing” trend. The conservative columnist William Safire complained that “the fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before.”

To read the rest of the report on the attacks against journalism, follow these links:

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