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Effects of Ashcroft FOI Act memorandum varied

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Effects of Ashcroft FOI Act memorandum varied

  • Half of FOI Act officers surveyed by the General Accounting Office perceive no effect from the Ashcroft FOI Act memo, but a third say it influences their decisions in releasing information.

Sep. 15, 2003 — A recently released General Accounting Office study shows that nearly half of all Freedom of Information Act officials surveyed report no changes in how their agencies respond to requests for public information, compared to their responses during the Clinton administration. The study, conducted at the request of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), looked at the effects of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Oct. 12, 2001, memorandum to federal agencies to guide their responses to FOI Act requests.

Of the183 FOI Act officers surveyed, a third reported that they would likely make fewer discretionary disclosures. Of that third, 75 percent said the Ashcroft policies was a “top factor” in their limiting such disclosures.

The Ashcroft memorandum was issued a month after the events of September 11. However, the Department of Justice has insisted that it was drafted before the terrorist attacks.

Two major changes from the Clinton administration guidance, cited by GAO, were Ashcroft’s direction to agencies to give “careful consideration” to exemptions before making discretionary disclosures of information, and the assurance to agencies that the Justice Department would defend denials of information where a “sound legal basis” for denial existed.

Ashcroft’s memorandum was a marked contrast to that of his predecessor, former Attorney General Janet Reno, who directed federal agencies to exercise a “presumption of disclosure.” If agencies had the discretion to grant or deny records that fell within an exemption to the FOI Act, they were to grant those requests unless they could point to a “foreseeable harm” that would occur from disclosure.

(GAO-03-981) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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