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Tag Archive: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

So Much For the New FOIA Laws

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When President Bush signed the Open Government Act of 2007 on New Years Eve, the first reform of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a decade, one might have been tempted to believe the administration was reevaluating its embrace of hyper secrecy and warming to more openness and transparency. No such luck.

Over the weekend, Think Progress reported how the administration is now attempting to "neuter" the new law, which Congress wrote to open up government to more accountability. The law sets up the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), designed as an ombudsman to provide independent oversight and settle disputes over FOIA requests. The law authorized funds to address backlogs in the requests and resolve the requests in a timely manner.

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New FOIA Law Signed

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In all the festivities surrounding the New Year's holiday, you might have missed President Bush signing the Open Government Act of 2007 on Monday without comment, the first reform of the Freedom of Information Act in a decade. David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Center for Citizen Media, hails the act for expanding the definition of who is representative of the news media. "This change would significantly benefit bloggers and non-traditional journalists by making them eligible for reduced processing and duplication fees that are available (to members of the media)."

The Associated Press reports that the new law "is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security."

(Updated: The Associated Press reported on the new law; the First Amendment Center did not issue a statement as previously reported.)

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GovernmentDocs.org Debuts from CREW

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Our friends at CREW are providing a fantastic resource for reporters, bloggers, citizens and government document junkies--GovernmentDocs.org: An online compendium of scanned images of documents acquired from government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act by (right now) a handful of nonprofit groups (including the correspondence logs that Anu's been acquiring for our RealTime project). Documents that once would have been filed away can have second and third lives online, where they can be read, annotated, tagged, and otherwise scrutinized by anyone who signs up to create an account. CREW also uses OCR technology to make the images word-searchable; the results aren't always perfect but they do make the documents easier to navigate. CREW's release is online here, and, full disclosure: Sunlight Foundation supported the creation of the site.

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FOIA Files Suggest the Truth is Out There…

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...but lots of times just not available through FOIA. The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that promotes accessibility, accountability and openness in government policies, has launched the FOIA Files, a repository of descriptions of news and investigative articles that relied on the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose information from the government. It's searchable by agency, date, congressional district and state, and by whether or not the news organization that did the story had to go to court to get the records it sought. I couldn't help noticing a fair number of entries like this one:

The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, in a report about the public's frequent unawareness of the presence of dangerous chemicals in their neighborhoods, found that the Environmental Protection Agency refused to provide even redacted copies of risk management plan summaries for five counties in and around Macon. The newspaper requested the summaries under FOIA and the EPA acknowledged they are public, but refused to release them because they contain information about worst-case scenarios.
Following FOIA seems to be regarded as optional by a lot of government agencies.

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Information Independence Day

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President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Freedom of Information Act law on July 4, 1966. In doing so he declared: "A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit." Indeed, when members of the public have diligently pursued information under the FOIA, they have identified government waste and mismanagement and exposed significant controversies about government programs.

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Sen. Jon Kyl: Afraid of Open Government

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Sometimes senators admit that they are holding a particular piece of legislation. In this case, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) admitted that he is the one blocking passage of the OPEN Government Act, a FOIA improving bill cosponsored by Sens. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). Kyl states that the bill would require the Justice Department to release sensitive data related to law enforcement and that the "uncharacteristically strong" opposition to the bill from Justice is reason enough to block the bill. According to the AP, the Justice Department is concerned about "a section that would eliminate exemptions allowing the government to deny access to privileged or law-enforcement sensitive information." Sen. Leahy assailed the hold that Kyl is using to block the bill, "This is a good government bill that Democrats and Republicans alike can and should work together to enact. It should be passed without further delay." The same goes for the Senate Campaign Disparity Act (S. 223). If Kyl can fess up to holding an open government bill then Mitch McConnell can cough up the names of the anonymous senators blocking S. 223 from passing.

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House Considers Transparency Measures

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We've been following the progress of a couple of bills making their way through Congress. H.R. 1309 puts a little more teeth in our Freedom of Information Act--the main lever that the press and the public has for prying documents out of the executive branch (and see here for useful FOIA tips maintained by Investigative Reporters & Editors), while S. 223 would, for the first time, require campaign committees of Senate candidates to file their contribution and expenditure information electronically with the Federal Election Commission rather than sending in stacks of paper (both House and Presidential candidates file electronically).

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