When dawn broke on the new year, it momentarily appeared like we might see a government that was just a little less secretive than it had been for the previous seven years. In a small victory for journalists in President George W. Bush’s war on the press, the president signed the OPEN Government Act without comment. The bill toughened the Freedom of Information Act with a variety of new rules that would make the process of getting information quicker and more transparent.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the administration had its fingers crossed. This week, funds for the Office of Government Information Services, which handles FOIA requests, were transferred to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is much more subject to influence by the White House—so much so that they may not even carry out the basic FOIA-related functions of the previous office. “By shifting the funding to the Justice Department, OMB would effectively eliminate the office, because it appears no similar operation would be created there,” according to an aide to Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT).
Alas, another setback for open government. The ability to hold the government accountable rests on being able to know what the government is doing—and the Bush administration has a long, hostile pattern of controlling government information. The FOIA ACT, a key tool since 1967 in demanding government accountability, has been a particular target for the administration.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the FOIA Act in 1966, despite being opposed to the legislation himself. But his signing statement, written by Bill Moyers, stated that “a democracy works when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit.”
All administrations have their tussles with FOIA requests. But when the Bush administration took over in 2000, a frontal assault on Freedom of Information requests began.
As I documented in my May 2005 examination of Bush’s war on the press, Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed a Clinton administration-issued policy governing FOIA requests that allowed documents to be withheld only when “foreseeable harm” would likely result and changed it to one in which merely a “sound legal basis” had to be found. And that was just the beginning.
Even when documents were not withheld de jure, administration officials often withheld them de facto. When People for the American Way sought documents on prisoners’ cases being litigated in secret, the Justice Department required it to pay $373,000 in search fees before officials would even look. “It’s become much, much harder to get responses to FOIA requests, and it’s taking much, much longer,” David Schulz, the attorney who helps the Associated Press with FOIA requests, explained to a reporter. “Agencies seem to view their role as coming up with techniques to keep information secret rather than the other way around. That’s completely contrary to the goal of the act.”
The Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy notes that “Over the past nine years, the number of FOIA requests processed has fallen 20 percent, the number of FOIA personnel is down 10 percent, the backlog [of pending requests] has tripled, and costs of handling a request are up 79 percent.”
Responding to pressure over the abuse of the FOIA Act, Bush issued an executive order in December 2005 mandating that agencies respond better to FOIA requests. But little progress was made. The Department of Justice issued a report attempting to show progress on the issue, but it approached farce, with statistics and graphics in the report contradicting the claims made on the previous page. The DOJ reported that more than half of the agencies successfully met their FOIA milestones, “and that 90 percent made meaningful progress.” But the report’s graphics show that only 11 of 25 agencies met all their milestones, and three agencies did not meet a single target.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) forced the administration’s hand late last year when they sponsored the OPEN Government Act, which passed through Congress and President Bush signed in January. But once again, by attempting to eliminate the very office that handles FOIA requests—which was strengthened by the OPEN Government Act—the administration has responded with another assault on government transparency. While not as publicized as similar attempts to limit information like the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes or the “missing” emails in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, it is no less damaging to the relationship between the government and the governed.
This is an issue that will not be going away anytime soon, thanks in part to the efforts of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which is sponsoring a Sunshine Week to draw attention to needed transparency on behalf of the government and the public’s right to know. The fact that newspaper staffers are paying attention to the lack of transparency is comforting, but it is hardly enough, nor should it be. It’s the people’s business that needs watching in the first place, and that responsibility lies on all of us.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will be published in March.
George Zornick is a New York based writer.