WASHINGTON – Senators listened to advice from the media,researchers and government officials Tuesday on how to improve access to information at a subcommittee meeting to consider reforms to the Freedom of Information Act.
Reporters and researchers told the Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on terrorism,technology and homeland security of the importance of a citizen's right to be informed,as a part of the checks and balances system and for public safety.
The discussion came during the first Sunshine Week,nearly a decade since Congress approved major reforms to the Freedom of Information Act,and just before Wednesday's National FOIA Day,said Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas,who presided over the hearing.
Sunshine laws require governments to operate openly,or in the sunlight,and freedom of information acts require government to release information,generally with exceptions for such things as criminal investigations,individual personnel files and ongoing litigation.
“I hope today's hearing will prove to be an important first step towards strengthening our open government laws and to reinforcing our national commitment to freedom of information,” Cornyn.
The Open Government Act,introduced by Cornyn and Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,would close loopholes,set deadlines for the government to respond to requests for information and provide tools,funding and training to improve agency policies and performance.
A 2003 survey by the National Security Archive found the FOIA system in extreme disarray,said Mark Tapscott,the director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
He said agency contact information on Web sites was often inaccurate,response times largely failed to meet the statutory standard,only a few agencies performed thorough document searches and the lack of central accountability resulted in lost requests and the inability to track progress.
Katherine M. “Missy” Cary,Texas assistant attorney general and chief of the open records division,described the state's model system. She said the Texas records system uses a toll-free hotline to clarify the law and make information accessible.
“There is no question that the addition of a similar system under the proposed act would provide citizens with the customer service,attention and access that citizens deserve from their public servants,” Cary said.
Inefficiencies combine with reluctance to produce records to win the government such labels as “secretive,” speakers told the senators.
“The Open Government Act takes incremental but important steps toward improving FOIA processes,” said Lisa Graves,senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union,including “emphasizing that the core purpose of FOIA is disclosure,not secrecy.”
The speakers agreed some information should be classified for security purposes or to “protect other important national and individual interests,” Graves said,“but we,as a people must continue to resist a culture of secrecy.”
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,not only in the physical world,but perhaps even more so in fighting waste,fraud and corruption in government and protecting public safety,” Tapscott said.
Tapscott listed several examples of reporting made possible by FOIA.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that $28 million in federal disaster aid went to thousands of residents in Florida's Dade County,100 miles south of where Hurricane Frances made landfall.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency wouldn't release records,but a FOIA lawsuit forced FEMA to release the information.
Cornyn noted that reform could make FOIA litigation the exception rather than the rule.
Speakers told the senators that public safety is at issues when the government withholds crucial information.
Tapscott said Cox Newspapers had been denied a Justice Department database that could allow reporters and others to find illegal aliens who should have been deported when they finished criminal jail terms but were released when immigration officials failed to take them into custody.
The 9/11 Commission Report says that publicity might have derailed the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon,said Meredith Fuchs,general counsel of the National Security Archive.
The hijackers' paymaster,Ramzi Binalshibh,said in a February 2003 interrogation that if the organizers of the attacks had known that Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested at his Minnesota flight school on immigration charges,Bin Laden would have called off the attacks,the report said.
The Associated Press found that researchers at the National Institutes of Health were collecting royalties on drugs and devices they were testing on patients who did not know of their financial interests in the products in 2000,said Walter Mears,former AP Washington bureau chief. “When the story hit the wire,the practice ended,” he said,and it was made possible by information pried loose by the FOIA.