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Panelists disagree on effect of Bush policies on openness

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Mar 19, 2002    

Panelists disagree on effect of Bush policies on openness

  • Open-government advocates and a Justice official debated during FOI Act conference whether heightened scrutiny over access is prudent policy or an unnecessary “information lockdown.”

Open government advocates during a National Freedom of Information Day conference on March 15 said the Bush administration chooses secrecy rather than openness when it comes to granting the media and the public access to information, especially after Sept. 11.

And although some measures — particularly a new attorney general’s memorandum on records access — were in the works well before Sept.11, the government has used the subsequent war to legitimize secrecy, they said.

“This is a useful hook to use to pass legislation or enact policies that government wants to do anyway,” said Patrice McDermott of the American Library Association.

Members of a panel at the Freedom Forum headquarters in Arlington, Va., debated whether the information being denied to the media during this period of heightened security is prudent policy or an unnecessary “information lockdown.”

Carl Stern, a professor at George Washington University, discussed the different approaches used by the Clinton and Bush administrations to make information available to the media and public.

He noted that the Clinton administration based its decisions to release information on “foreseeable harm,” a standard that takes into consideration whether the release of informaiton could cause considerable impact.

That standard, detailed in a 1993 memorandum drafted by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, urged freedom-of-information personnel to err on the side of openness, he said.

But the Bush administration bases the release of information on a “sound legal basis standard,” a standard that says if information falls under one of the FOI Act exemptions, and if denial can be legally defended in the courtroom, FOI officers can withhold the information. Attorney General John Ashcroft offered the new standard in an Oct. 12 memorandum.

Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Ashcroft memo hardly shocked anyone because the Bush administration exhibited tendencies to withhold information from the public.

“The Bush administration, as a matter of principal, has discouraged public access,” said Aftergood, adding that government deliberately refuses to release information while waiting for policy to catch up to the new “threatening environment.”

He said the war has caused a “knee-jerk policy leading to a wholesale withdrawal of information that has nothing to do with terrorism.”

But Dan Metcalfe, co-director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy, said the Ashcroft memo did not explicitly encourage agencies to withhold information, but to exercise discretionary disclosure with caution. He said the Ashcroft memorandum was hardly news and simply evoked “a change in tone” in terms of FOI Act matters.

“The story here is not remarkable in that it was issued,” he said. “It would have been remarkable had it not been issued.”

KG

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