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Four years of uncontrolled secrecy affected Katrina coverage

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. It is with no sense of…

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

It is with no sense of satisfaction that The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports in this issue of The News Media & The Law that we were right: Post-Sept. 11 actions taken by the government regarding information policy have greatly damaged what citizens know about government operations.

It is particularly sad that the best illustration we have of this new reality is the dearth of information coming out of Louisiana and Mississippi about unnecessary deaths, environmental damage, chemical spills, and government mismanagement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Since Sept. 11, we've seen Justice Department directives restricting use of the Freedom of Information Act, an increase in the number of classified documents, frequent use by the government of the state secrets privilege and zealous pursual of government "leakers" who speak to the media.

Here are only a few alarming statistics compiled by Openthe

•requests for information under the FOI Act have more than quadrupled over the past six years – from fewer than 1 million (869,576) in 1998 to hitting more than 4 million (4,080,737) in 2004.

•government classified documents a record 15.6 million times in 2004. That's an 81 percent increase over the rate that existed in the year before Sept. 11.

�, nearly two-thirds of the 7,045 meetings of committees that fall under the Federal Advisory Committee Act were completely closed to the public, undermining one purpose of the act.

It's been difficult over the past four years to persuade government officials that public access to information is a problem. Government secrecy has been easy to justify because officials just throw out the it's-a-matter-of-national-security argument.

But we are now faced with a situation in which a minimum of $62 billion in federal disaster aid is going to be spent rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Will the public ever know who the money was given to and what it was used for? As three Florida newspapers discovered after four hurricanes hit their state in 2004, tracking disaster-aid spending requires time, patience and money. (See our story, page 4.) Guest columnist Seth Borenstein (page 13) explains that he and other environmental reporters have had no luck in reporting what chemicals were released into the water that folks in New Orleans waded around in for almost three weeks.

These issues have little to do with national security. But actions taken by Congress, state legislatures and federal agencies over the past four years are now limiting access to environmental and economic information that is necessary for communities to be safer and healthier. Average Americans may not care how taxpayer dollars are spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they almost certainly will want to know if state and federal aid is misused or wasted in New Orleans. Thousands of people need our help on the Gulf Coast. The only way to know whether they're getting it is if we have access to government records.