NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Freedom of Information · July 26, 2005
Gonzales says he will revisit Ashcroft FOI Act memo
July 26, 2005 · Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will reconsider former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s guidance to government record holders which suggests erring on the side of withholding not releasing records, The Associated Press reported today.
“I’m always happy to reconsider decisions relating to the release of information,” Gonzales said in an interview with AP. He promised, “I’ll go back and look at it.”
Gonzales’ pledge comes six months after he told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that, if confirmed, he would “undertake an examination of the Justice Department’s polices and practices under the FOI Act.”
The Department of Justice guides federal agencies on the FOI Act and typically the attorney general’s guidance changes when there is a change in administration. Ashcroft’s memorandum, issued in October 2001, has been controversial because it assures federal agencies that the department will defend exemptions to the FOI Act unless a lawsuit would jeopardize the government’s ability to keep information secret in the future.
Ashcroft’s predecessor Attorney General Janet Reno advised federal FOI Act officers and specialists to release information not subject to mandatory FOI Act exemptions unless they could point to a specific harm that would occur from disclosure. By contrast, Ashcroft urged agency personnel to give full consideration to the exemptions in order to protect national security, law enforcement activity and personal privacy.
Daniel Metcalfe, co-director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy, characterizes the Ashcroft instructions as a “change in tone,” from the Reno instructions. However, a study by the Government Accountability Office this year showed that a third of the federal government’s FOI officers and specialists believed that they had been directed to withhold more information.
AP quoted Gonzales as saying, “Congress has determined that certain information can be protected under certain exemptions under FOIA. And so we’re simply taking action consistent with what Congress has determined is good policy. But I’m always happy to look to see, you know, internal guidance.”