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Freedom of Information, Sort Of

For more than 40 years, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been the pillar of the framework for transparent government – the primary advocacy instrument for deterring and exposing unchecked executive power.  However, since 9/11, FOIA has been hobbled by a doctrine of secrecy executed with administrative delays and ploys to keep government records “in the shadows.”

The OPEN Government Act, signed into law on December 31, is the first legislative update to FOIA since 1996 and a reassertion of checks and balances.  Now it will be easier for people to get information from their government.  The law provides for an online tracking system for requesters, a government-wide office to deal with disputes and concerns, penalties for offices that take too long to respond, a limit to agency “search” and “duplication” fees, and reimbursement of attorney fees in some situations where requesters must go to court.

But it wasn’t easy.

The FOIA improvement became law only after months of obstruction, foot-dragging and secret holds.  There is no doubt we had some solid champions in Rep. Waxman (D-CA), Sen. Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Cornyn (R-TX) who kept the bill alive in shark-infested waters.  However, it might have never passed it at all without good, old-fashioned rabble rousing. 

After the bill passed the House in March 2007 by a huge margin, an anonymous senator placed a “secret hold” on it. Proponents decried the stubborn irony of preventing more access to our government records with secret holds and other back-door maneuvering by the White House.  Calls and emails poured into congressional offices, news articles and blog posts demanded the holder be revealed. 

We (the rabble) finally outed Senator Kyl as the secret holder.  Once exposed, Kyl surprisingly began to negotiate. Not surprisingly, Kyl was representing the terms of the White House.  Still, the bill began to move, and finally passed the Senate by unanimous consent. 

But it was not yet time for champagne.

It turned out that there were some issues with the bill that passed.  Some of us suspected foul play and poison pills . . . more noise and negotiations ensued.  Suddenly an imperfect, but passable fix bill emerged in December.  It was quickly pushed through at congressional warp speed with veto-proof support.  Perhaps everybody needed a win – to quiet the rabble.  In the end, even Bush could not refuse to sign the bill into law.

But this hard-fought battle is only a half-victory.

To be sure, the new law will tear down some of the bureaucratic blockade often used intentionally to prevent government operations from seeing the light of day.  Still, even with this victory, the rule-making authority of the executive branch makes it possible for the “War on Terror” to continue to be used to obviate the “informed consent of the governed."  The Ashcroft doctrine of withholding documents as long as some argument for a “sound legal basis” exists still stands.  This policy is a reversal of the Clinton-Reno instruction to officials to interpret FOIA in favor of disclosure – unless it was “reasonably foreseeable that disclosure could be harmful.”

We can expect the Bush-Cheney Administration will use every tactic available to keep their deeds under a cloak of secrecy.  Ready the rabble.