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Where does Bush stand on government secrecy?

ASK THIS | April 26, 2005

A leading proponent of government in the sunshine poses some questions about freedom of information that he wishes the president would answer.

By Pete Weitzel


(703) 807-2100


Q. Mr. President. Sen. John Cornyn, with whom you worked when he was attorney general and you were governor in Texas, has filed a bill aimed fixing many of the administrative problems that have plagued the Freedom of Information Act – problems such as the excessive delays, not just in getting records but in simply getting a response. Will your administration support his efforts to make FOIA work better for the American people?


Q. You told the American Society of Newspaper Editors recently that you “believe in open government.” But the policy set out by your previous attorney general directed all federal departments and agencies to withhold information from the public if they could find any legal basis to do so. Will you urge your new attorney general to review the Justice Department’s guidelines and issue a new policy consistent with the philosophy you expressed to ASNE and with the “presumption of openness” expressed by Congress in adopting the law?


Q. Almost everyone involved in the classification of government information, starting with the head of the Information Security Oversight Office, says the federal government is classifying too many documents and keeping them classified for too long. The overall rate of classification has increased more than 80 per cent since you became president. Do you believe these classification decisions all properly safeguard information the American people have no right to see. If not, what will your administration do to reverse this trend toward ever more secrecy?


Q. There is also a trend within many of the departments and agencies toward what some are calling “pseudo-classification” — the use of designators like “sensitive but unclassified” to restrict access to information and encourage the withholding of documents that the public has a right to seek under FOIA. Unlike the classification system, there are no established criteria for these withholding decisions and the decision-makers are not required to have any special training. Would you agree that this should be changed and that either by law or executive order, meaningful standards that emphasize the citizen’s right to know should be set?


There has been a marked increase in FOIA requests for government information. In 2003, the last year for which full records are available, 3.2 million people sought records, an increase of 36 percent in a year. There is no precise data, but one analysis of the data suggested that, except for veterans seeking benefit information, fewer than half of the requesters got the information they sought.


The federal government also made a record 15.6 million “classification decisions” last year, including an increase of 50 percent in original classifications, the base from which all subsequent secrecy decisions result. It’s an imperfect process. The government’s oversight office spot-checked 2,000 of those classification decision and found mistakes had been made in half the cases.


Coalition of Journalists for Open Government

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