Sprehe: A puzzling executive order

The Bush administration makes it harder to get information from the government

Executive Order: Improving Agency Disclosure of Information

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President Bush issued an executive order Dec. 14, 2005, titled "Improving Agency Disclosure of Information." The order reaffirms the importance of the Freedom of Information Act as a means for citizens to obtain information about their government. It states that federal agencies' FOIA operations "shall be both results-oriented and

produce results" as a service to citizens.

The new executive order is a puzzling document in the context of the Bush administration's performance on providing information to the public. Each presidential administration issues policy guidance on how to interpret FOIA. The important question is which way agencies should lean when in doubt — for or against public disclosure.

President Clinton issued a memo on FOIA in 1993 that stressed the principle of open government. His administration's message to agencies was that when they were deciding whether to release a document under FOIA, they should stress the public's right to the information.

In other words, when in doubt, release the information.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo on FOIA in 2001 that emphasizes safeguarding national security, enhancing the effectiveness of law enforcement, protecting sensitive business information and preserving personal privacy. Discretionary decisions on release of information under FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests at stake.

In other words, when in doubt, do not release the information.

The Bush administration's behavior has been uniformly consistent with the Ashcroft memo. We have heard the hullabaloo over Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to release information about his energy task force.

More recently, the Bush administration rejected congressional requests to provide documents pertaining to newly confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts' actions while working for the president.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed reducing the amount of information chemical facilities must provide to the public through the agency's Toxics Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.

Although Hurricane Katrina has elevated public concern about toxic chemical release in plants near New Orleans, the EPA has decided it must reduce the Toxics Release Inventory paperwork burden on chemical companies, raising a public outcry about measures to curtail information to the public.

And many agencies now require a formal FOIA request for information they used to freely provide, such as information on Web sites. The effect is a mind-boggling backlog of FOIA requests that makes the president's new executive order a joke.

In light of the administration's record of excessive secrecy, what are we to make of the new executive order on FOIA? In my judgment, the executive order is window dressing. It is another ploy to distract attention from how the administration consistently denies the public the information it has a right to see.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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