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Export license holders no longer secret, court holds

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information         Jul 6, 2000    

Export license holders no longer secret, court holds

  • Recent export licenses that allow humanitarian sales and donations to Cuba must be made public, after a federal court ruled that a presidential order cannot keep them secret.

The identities of persons granted federal licenses to export goods and services to Cuba must be released to the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, a federal District Court judge in Tampa ruled in late June. The newspapers sought copies of the licenses from 1996 through 1999.

The U.S. Department of Commerce cannot withhold the licenses under the statutory exemption to the Freedom of Information Act because the statute protecting that information, the Export Administration Act of 1979, expired in 1994. An Executive Order issued by the President in 1994 extends the effectiveness of that law “to the extent permitted by law,” but the order is “simply not a statute,” the court said.

Even congressional endorsement of the Executive Order by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act does not make the information exempt, Judge Richard Lazzara wrote. The FOI Act represents a general philosophy of full disclosure of government information unless that information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language, he said.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that Congress is expected to loosen the embargo against sales to Cuba under pressure from farm-state lawmakers who want to sell food to Cuba. There are already humanitarian exceptions to the Cuban embargo allowing sale or donation of medicine and donation of food. However, exporters must obtain licenses from the Commerce Department before shipping any goods to Cuba.

The Commerce Department can appeal the decision.

(Times Publishing Company v. U.S. Department of Commerce; Media Counsel: Allison Steele, St. Petersburg) RD

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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