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Bush signs stronger FOIA bill

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online
01.01.08

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush yesterday signed a bill aimed at giving the public and the media greater access to information about what the government is doing. The new law toughens the Freedom of Information Act, the first such makeover to the signature public-access law in a decade.

Bush signed the bill without comment in one of his final decisions of the year.

The legislation, known as the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (S. 2488), creates a system for the news media and public to track the status of their FOIA requests. It establishes a hotline service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.

Agencies would be required to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA requests. Nonproprietary information held by government contractors also would be subject to the law.

The bill amounts to a congressional pushback against the Bush administration's movement to greater secrecy since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

A month after the attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security. An earlier House version of the bill, H.R. 1309, contained a provision aimed at reversing Ashcroft's order and restoring a presumption that records should be released on request unless there was a finding that disclosure could do harm.

The bill that was signed into law, however, did not include this provision.

"Whatever records that a government agency was legally entitled to withhold before enactment of the 'OPEN Government Act' can still be withheld now that the President has signed it," Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy said Jan. 2.

The omission of the provision from the final version of the bill prompted criticism from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the House bill. When the Senate bill was discussed in the House, Waxman called the legislation "a good first step," but said it was "not as strong as the House-passed bill."

"It does not include a provision which I thought was a key one establishing a presumption that government records should be released to the public unless there is a good reason to keep them secret," he said.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., however, applauded the exclusion of the provision. "I am pleased to note the provision repealing the so-called Ashcroft memorandum was eliminated," he said. "I think preservation of the Ashcroft policy is the right policy to adopt in the current environment."

The legislation cites Supreme Court decisions affirming a "strong presumption in favor of disclosure" and states that "disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the act."

Dozens of news organizations, including the Associated Press, supported the legislation.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said he was pleased that Bush had signed the bill.

"When I came to the Senate five years ago, I pledged to bring a little Texas sunshine to Washington, D.C.," Cornyn said in a statement. "This new law does just that. It holds politicians and bureaucrats accountable in an age of ever-expanding size and scope of government. It strengthens our democracy by building on the ideals this nation was founded upon — the people's fundamental right to know."

Another sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement: "These reforms are a ray of sunshine and a turning point toward greater accountability."

Last year, the government received 21.4 million requests for information under the 40-year-old law, according to statistics provided by the Justice Department. The government processed nearly the same number of requests, which was almost 1.5 million more than it processed during the previous fiscal year, according to the department.


Update
National Archives appoints first FOIA ombudsman
Veteran open-government advocate Miriam Nisbet has been chosen to direct new office, which was created by OPEN Government Act of 2007. 06.11.09

Previous
House overwhelmingly passes expanded FOIA bill
White House won't say whether President Bush will sign legislation. 12.19.07

Related

Senate OKs bill to improve responses to FOIA requests

Legislation to reverse post-9/11 secrecy presumption could be taken up by House this week; administration is expected to support it. 12.17.07

Leahy: Bush proposal would undercut open government

Plan would move newly created freedom-of-information office from National Archives to Justice Department, which critics contend has conflict of interest. 02.05.08

New FOI bill signals renewed push for sunshine
By Eugenia Harris FOI Day panelists say 2007 open-government law was first step; newly introduced measure in Senate is sign of reforms to come. 03.17.08

Hillary Clinton says she'd replace Bush's FOI policy
John McCain, Barack Obama say they'd review current standard governing information release: when in doubt concerning national security, withhold it. 03.28.08

Government secrecy is on the rise, FOI coalition warns
'The open society on which we pride ourselves has been undermined and will take hard work to repair,' says report released by OpenTheGovernment.org. 09.09.08

Freedom of information overview


How to file an FOIA request

Freedom of information horizon


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