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Senate moves to strengthen FOIA

By The Associated Press
06.25.05

WASHINGTON — The Senate took steps yesterday to ensure that Congress clearly explains future efforts to restrict the public's access to government documents.

Approved by a voice vote, the Senate bill requires that future legislation containing new exemptions to what records are open for public scrutiny under Freedom of Information Act be "stated explicitly within the text of the bill."

The measure was promoted by Sens. Jon Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who have sought to protect and strengthen the act, passed in 1966, in a post-9/11 era when security concerns tend to override the public's right to know.

The bill is S. 1181. The legislation must still be taken up by the House.

"If records can be open, they should be open," Cornyn said. "If good reason exists to keep something closed, it is the government that should bear the burden (of proving that), not the other way around."

Leahy said FOIA provided a number of appropriate exemptions for national security, law enforcement, confidential business information and personal privacy. But bills increasingly include statutory exemptions, or ambiguous language that the courts might interpret as exemptions, he said.

He gave as an example a broad exemption on disclosing critical infrastructure information that was part of the law creating the Department of Homeland Security.

"Not every statutory exemption is inappropriate, but every proposal deserves scrutiny." he said. "Focusing more sunshine on this process is an antidote to exemption creep."

Leahy and Cornyn are also sponsoring other legislation aimed at reducing bureaucratic delays in meeting FOIA requests and addressing the issue of government secrecy. Bills they and others have introduced would tighten FOIA compliance deadlines, levy penalties for agencies that miss disclosure deadlines and set up a government ombudsman to monitor compliance.


Previous
Senate panel passes bill targeting FOIA exemptions
Measure would require that additional exceptions to open-government law be spelled out precisely in new legislation. 06.10.05

Related

Openness must govern government, Sen. Cornyn says

By Eugenia Harris Democracy requires 'informed consent' afforded by open government, Texas Republican tells conference. 03.17.05

Senate panel approves 'Faster FOIA' bill
Unanimous vote sends measure sponsored by John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to full chamber. 03.17.05

Attorney general says he'll review FOIA guidelines
Alberto Gonzales tells AP he will reconsider policy instituted by his predecessor, John Ashcroft, that urged agencies to use caution in considering records request. 07.27.05

Report: Government secrecy grows, costs more
Coalition finds big jump in secrets from 2003-04, but archives oversight director says numbers don't solely reflect overclassification, as some agencies now work 24/7. 09.06.05

Bush signs order to speed FOIA requests
President directs federal agencies to be more efficient in dealing with calls for government data, but leaves in place 4-year-old policy that restricts access. 12.15.05

How to file an FOIA request

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