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Profile: Freedom of Information Act
Freedom of Information Act was a participant or observer in the following events:
Representatives William Moorhead (D-PA) and Frank Horton (R-NY) cosponsor a series of amendments designed to improve the effectiveness of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law is designed to make it easier for journalists, researchers, and citizens to see government records, but in practice the law is cumbersome: agencies have little impetus to produce documents in a timely manner, charge exorbitant fees for searching and copying documents, and too often battle FOIA requests in court. With Watergate fresh in legislators’ minds, the amendments to FOIA are welcome changes. The amendments expand the federal agencies covered, and mandate expediting of document and record requests. But as the bill nears final passage, senior officials of the Ford White House are mobilizing to challenge it. The CIA, Defense and Treasury Departments, Civil Service, and many on President Ford’s staff, including Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, all urge a veto. Most bothersome is the provision that a court can review a federal decision not to release a document requested under FOIA. Ford will veto the bill, but Congress will override the vetoes (see November 20, 1974). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 29-30]
Entity Tags: William Moorhead, US Department of the Treasury, US Civil Service, Frank Horton, Ford administration, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of Defense, Freedom of Information Act, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, is significantly strengthened by a series of amendments (see January 1974 - September 1974) which become law over President Ford’s veto. Ford initially wanted to sign the bill as soon as it came to his desk from Congress, but was persuaded to veto it by Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Antonin Scalia. Rumsfeld and Cheney argued that the bill would promote leaks to the media from within the administration, and Scalia wrote a brief judging that the bill was unconstitutional. But Congress, weary of opposition after almost 11 years of investigations, reports, and hearings (and out of patience with executive foot-dragging after the Watergate investigations), is ready to pass the bill. The House of Representatives votes overwhelmingly to override Ford’s veto by a 371-31 vote. The Senate votes to override the veto 65-27. As a result, government attempts to hinder FOIA requests—subjecting requesters to unusual delays, charging requesters exorbitant prices for copying and searching, subjecting requesters to bureaucratic run-arounds, mixing confidential and exempt materials with non-exempt materials and using that juxtaposition to refuse to release materials, and forcing requesters to file costly lawsuits to force compliance—will be markedly constrained. [National Security Archive, 11/23/2004; Roberts, 2008, pp. 10]
Attorney General John Ashcroft encourages federal agencies to deny requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In a memo to all government departments and agencies, he states, “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.” This is a dramatic shift from the Clinton administration, which instructed federal officials to grant all information requests, using a “presumption of disclosure,” unless there was “foreseeable harm” in doing so. [Washington Post, 12/2/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 96] The New York Times notes that while the new policy was announced after 9/11, “it had been planned well before the attacks.” [New York Times, 1/3/2003] In 2007, author Charlie Savage will write that Ashcroft turns the Clinton policy of foreseeable harm “on its head.” He will write: “Reviving a Reagan-era policy aimed at undermining the Freedom of Information Act, Ashcroft instructed the government to reject FOIA requests if it was at all possible to do so, under any legal reason for withholding documents—even if the information sought was harmless. And he promised to back up any decision to reject a FOIA request in court. The Ashcroft policy quickly discouraged the release of information to the public because few people were willing to go to the trouble and expense of an inevitable lawsuit.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 96]
White House chief of staff Andrew Card instructs government agencies to be watchful about safeguarding records that might contain any “information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people.” Card’s order does not define terms, and agency heads are encouraged to define such cited information as broadly as possible. As a result, many government agencies begin refusing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests under a broadly, and often crudely, applied rubric of “national security.” Card’s order precipitates a cascade of new designations for non-classified information that agencies do not want to release, including “For Official Use Only,” “Sensitive but Unclassified,” “Not for Public Dissemination,” and others. The Congressional Research Service will later estimate that some 50 to 60 new designations are created by various executive agencies to keep information away from the public. In addition, some agencies allow any official or employee, from the agency head to the lowliest clerk, to designate a document as off-limits; all 180,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, for example, can designate a document “For Official Use Only” and thus keep it out of public hands. Reporter and author Charlie Savage will write in 2007: “There is no system for tracking who stamped it, for what reason, and how long it should stay secret. There is no process for appealing a secrecy decision.” Websites containing reams of government information are purged and sometimes shut down entirely. Periodic reports containing information that someone deems sensitive, or perhaps merely embarrassing, are terminated. FOIA requests are routinely stalled. Even such innocuous documents as the Defense Department’s personnel directory, formerly available for sale at the Government Printing Office, is now deemed unsafe for public consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency stops publishing chemical plants’ plans for dealing with disasters, perhaps protecting the public from inquisitive terrorists but certainly easing the pressure on the plants to keep their disaster preparation plans current and effective. The Defense Department stops selling topographic charts, used by, among others, airlines for creating flight charts and biologists for mapping species distribution, for “fear” that “those intending harm” might use the charts to plot attacks on US targets. Even old press releases written specifically for public distribution are retroactively classified. [Andrew Card, 3/19/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 101-103]
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, and Veterans for Peace, file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records concerning the treatment of prisoners and detainees in US custody abroad, most specifically Iraq and Afghanistan. The request is the first spark in a firestorm of legal controversies, FOIA requests, government denials, and lawsuits, as the ACLU and its partners continue to attempt to squeeze documentation out of an uncooperative administration. Although the government will continue to withhold key records, ongoing litigation results in the eventual release of over 100,000 documents, which will be used by ACLU lawyers Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh to compile the book Administration of Torture (see October 22, 2007), which will show that detainees have been (and will be) systematically tortured and abused under the orders of senior government officials. [Union, 10/7/2003; American Civil Liberties Union, 10/22/2007]
Newly released CIA documents show that the agency uses “national security letters” (NSLs) to secure financial and other information about US citizens from employers, financial institutions, libraries, and other private and public firms (see January 2004). The documents were requested by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI has used NSLs for years, and drawn heavy criticism for its use of the instruments (see February 2005), but until now, the CIA’s use of NSLs has been a closely guarded secret. Like the FBI NSLs, the CIA’s letters come with “gag orders” that force the recipients to remain silent about the demand for information, or that there was even such a demand. According to ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman, often the recipient of an NSL cannot keep a copy of the letter or even take notes about the information turned over to the CIA. A CIA spokesman denies that its use of NSLs was ever kept secret, and the information has always been requested on a voluntary basis for “such legitimate purposes as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2008]
A US District Court orders the Justice Department to turn over ten documents from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to determine whether they should be released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say the documents may hold information that would shed light on the legal reasoning behind the Bush administration’s “Stellar Wind” warrantless wiretapping program (see Spring 2004 and December 15, 2005). EPIC and the ACLU seek the release of 30 documents from the OLC; Judge Henry Kennedy has ordered that 10 be turned over to him for further examination and 20 others remain classified because of national security considerations. Seven of those documents are about the government’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program” (TSP—apparently the same program as, or an element of, Stellar Wind), 12 are FBI documents detailing how TSP had assisted the Bureau in counterterrorism investigations, and one is an OLC memo covered under an exemption for “presidential communications”—presumably a memo written either by, or for, President Bush. [Ars Technica, 11/2/2008]
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