Monday, July 23, 2007

DAVID CARR: Let the Sun Shine

NYT: The Media Equation

We live in a nakedly transparent age. Celebrities live out loud, companies routinely have their business spilled all over the Web and anybody can find out an awful lot about you or me with a click of the mouse.

Not so in Washington, however, where the mechanism for releasing information has all but ground to a halt.

Four decades ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson reluctantly signed the Freedom of Information Act (F.O.I.A.) into law, requiring federal agencies to respond to any request for documents within 20 days and provide them within a reasonable time afterward. The law held that information gathered on our behalf — paid for and owned by you and me, at least theoretically — should be ours for the asking.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. While the mandate for disclosure is still there, it is overwhelmed by a Rube Goldberg apparatus that clanks and wheezes, but rarely turns up the data. Freedom of Information requests have been caught in the gears for decades, and journalists working on timely stories about lead in school lunch boxes, FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina and delays in the delivery of veterans’ benefits have all been stymied by agencies that flout the law through recalcitrance or ineptitude.

A recent survey by the National Security Archive, a private research group at George Washington University, found that five federal entities — the State Department, the C.I.A., the criminal division of the Justice Department, the Air Force and the F.B.I., all had some requests that were more than 15 years old. It can get pretty silly: In 2002, the National Zoo in Washington denied a request for the medical records of Ryma the giraffe because, it said, the release would violate the animal’s privacy rights. Almost everyone seems to realize that more sunlight is needed. A bill to bring the government into the same century as its citizens has picked up massive support across a broad spectrum, but has yet to reach the Senate floor for a vote because it is impaled on the obstinacy of a single senator. (More on him later.)

The attempt to improve the Freedom of Information Act passed the House with a large bipartisan majority (308-117) in March. In the Senate, the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in Our National Government Act of 2007, from Senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy, was reported out of the Judiciary Committee on April 12.

Both bills try to reduce the backlog of requests under the Freedom of Information Act by mandating that missing the 20-day statutory deadline would result in consequences for the stonewalling agency. The bills also call for an ombudsman to settle disputes and would establish a Freedom of Information hotline to track requests. Perhaps most important, the bills would mandate that if an agency disputes a request and is sued, it can’t simply “find” the information the day before the case goes to trial without some liability for legal costs. The bills also define media to include bloggers, so that they will eligible for the same waiver of fees, a minor accommodation of modern information realities.

The bills are not intended to open the government kimono any further (this being a very security-conscious age), but simply to make agencies meet the requirements of long-standing mandates. More than 100 groups including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Conservative Union and the Heritage Foundation — hardly the kind of folks who take to the ramparts — have pledged support for measure.

(And lest you think I’m simply carrying water for my chosen profession, the news media account for only 6 percent of all Freedom of Information requests; most come from private concerns and individuals.)

But for the time being, the bill in the Senate is going nowhere, and it is only fitting that it ended up in a cul-de-sac in June by way of something called a “secret hold,” a process by which a sitting senator need only raise an anonymous objection to stymie a bill.

For a time, no one knew who the secret senator was, but in May, the Society of Professional Journalists polled the Senate and soon discovered that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, had put a hold on the bill, in part because of “grave concerns” raised by the Justice Department in a 13-page letter sent to Senator Leahy on March 26. (Senator Leahy’s staff has since met with the Department of Justice and amended the bill to reflect some of its concerns.)........

1 comment:

Sara said...

Thanks for a nicely written piece on FOIA's history.

A good place to keep up with the way(s) that FOIA laws are being implemented is the State Sunshine Open Records blog.