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Gonzales could revisit Ashcroft Memorandum

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  1. Freedom of Information

    News Media Update         Washington, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Jan. 19, 2005    

Gonzales could revisit Ashcroft Memorandum

  • Alberto Gonzales would examine Justice Department Freedom of Information Act policies, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to written questions.

Jan. 19, 2005 — U.S. Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales said this week that, if confirmed, he would “undertake an examination” of the Justice Department’s policies and practices under the Freedom of Information Act.

Gonzales responded in writing to the written questions of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) after testifying Friday in a nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy is the ranking committee Democrat.

Leahy asked Gonzales if he would reverse the FOI policy articulated by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The senator noted that the Ashcroft policy reversed prior policy by Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno had directed agencies to make information available where discretion allowed unless disclosure would cause harm. Ashcroft told agencies the department would defend the use of FOI Act exemptions. His memorandum caused greater withholding of unclassified documents, Leahy said.

Gonzales said he had not reviewed Ashcroft’s FOI Act policies but would do so, that open government “is an important part of a free society.”

The nominee also assured Leahy that he would work with him on the “critical issue” of protections of Critical Infrastructure Information. However, he told the senator that he did not have great familiarity with CII issues and that it would be wise to gain experience with the Department of Homeland Security’s new CII regulations before changing the Homeland Security Act.

Gonzales said he recognized both the value of allowing government to study information to reduce vulnerability to terrorism while at the same time protecting the openness and transparency of government.

The Homeland Security Act allows the department to keep confidential CII submitted to it by private industry. Leahy fought to keep that provision out of the act and has introduced bills to remedy the secrecy it allows.

Responding to other of Leahy’s other questions, Gonzales defended what he said is a “substantial need for confidentiality” on non-public opinions from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which he said are not revealed outside the executive branch “by longstanding practice.”

However, he agreed that the office should disclose general written opinions with the consent of agencies who requested them, a practice he said has been in place since the Clinton administration.

RD


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