Let the Sun Shine In

Posted March 15, 2005 at 6:26pm

The natural tendency of government officials is to conceal their mistakes. It’s not because they’re inherently secretive or malevolent people (most of them, anyway). It’s a perfectly human tendency to avoid embarrassment and accountability whenever possible. Since 1966, the media and the public have had a legal wedge to pry open government files: the Freedom of Information Act. It’s gratifying to note that there is now bipartisan agreement that the law needs to be widened and strengthened.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) recently introduced the OPEN Government Act, aimed at closing loopholes that have decreased FOIA’s effectiveness. The pair has also introduced the Faster FOIA Act to establish an advisory commission to gather data that will support the case for facilitating compliance.

Also gratifying, and surprising, is that newly confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has expressed support for the idea of revising his predecessor’s edict on FOIA. A month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft changed government policy from the Clinton administration’s “presumption of disclosure” to one of giving agencies the right to withhold information if they could come up with a “sound legal basis” for doing so.

In a memo at the time, Ashcroft told agencies that when they decided to conceal information requested by citizens or the media, they could “be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.” This was an understandable, visceral response to the 9/11 events and the sense of vulnerability it created, but it was put into place so quickly that one suspects Ashcroft had something like this policy in mind before the attacks. Regardless, Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that he would support the Cornyn-Leahy legislation.

There’s a clear need for it. A Government Accountability Office study of 183 officials in 23 federal agencies found that 31 percent of them said they would be less likely to make a discretionary disclosure of information following Ashcroft’s memo.

The Cornyn-Leahy measure would require agencies to keep closer track of FOIA requests, impose sanctions when agencies miss deadlines in processing information requests and ensure that FOIA requires private firms that win government contracts to keep records. We hope that Congress will act with dispatch to pass the legislation, which is backed not just by journalistic groups but also a broad array of conservative and liberal organizations.

It was through FOIA that residents of the District of Columbia learned that the D.C. government knew about high lead levels in drinking water long before they claimed. The act unveiled the loss of thousands of pounds of weaponry missing from U.S. military bases. It was used by the Los Angeles Times to discover that government research scientists were collecting retainers from biomedical firms. FOIA focuses sunshine on government. We urge Congress to brighten it.