Bush order surprises watchdog group

Open government advocates say President Bush's Dec. 14 executive order fails to address the cause of problems in accessing government information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The executive order requires federal agencies to respond courteously to FOIA requesters and to appoint chief FOIA officers. But watchdog groups question whether the order is a genuine attempt to create a more transparent government.

“What the order does not do is engage with the causes of the FOIA backlogs," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "One of those causes is the removal of public information from the Web. I would rather get more documents from a rude FOIA officer than get a courteous denial.”

With respect to courtesy, the executive order states “FOIA requesters are seeking a service from the Federal Government and should be treated as such. Accordingly, in responding to a FOIA request, agencies shall respond courteously and appropriately.”

But Aftergood maintains the real problem with agencies' implementation of FOIA is not related to customer service. “In most cases, records that have been withdrawn from the Web are eventually released when requested under FOIA,” he said. But he added "their initial removal from online access typically adds months of delay and hundreds of dollars to the disclosure process in each case.”

As an example, Aftergood pointed to the Defense Department’s recent decision to place the U.S. Army Weapons System Handbook offline, which is not and has never been classified, he said. After repeated requests and delays, he obtained a printed version of the handbook through a FOIA request.

Aftergood said a portion of the order that states the chief FOIA officer must consider information technology to enhance FOIA procedures is promising. FOIA requests increased 71 percent between 2002 and 2004. The backlog of unanswered requests has increased 14 percent since 2002, Government Accountability Office officials testified in May.

The presidential directive states that the chief FOIA officer “shall examine the agency's use of information technology in responding to FOIA requests, including without limitation, the tracking of FOIA requests and communication with requesters.”

Aftergood said he hopes that language encourages federal departments, such as the FBI, CIA and Defense, to publish information on the Internet after they authorize individual FOIA requests.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of room to increase the reliance on IT for FOIA processing, especially for FOIA releases," Aftergood said. "Imagine if FOIA disclosures were automatically posted in an electronic reading room that others could search and review [online]. It’s a perfectly achievable task.”

The president’s rationale for issuing the new FOIA rules is unclear, Aftergood said.

Some lawmakers want to update FOIA by opening a window on the FOIA process. A Senate bill calls for using electronic databases to track the status of requests for government information. The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act also seeks the use of tougher deadlines for agency compliance and telephone and Internet hot lines to help people track their requests. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the bill last February, but it has not advanced significantly.

Aftergood said he doubts the order was issued to preempt congressional action, but he said he also does not think the order means the Bush administration has turned a new leaf on secrecy.

“I don’t know what prompted this order," Aftergood said. "I don’t believe it’s a deep-rooted commitment to freedom of information because we’ve seen no evidence of that over the past five years.” But he said he welcomes the order anyway. “When the government complies with the law, that is a good thing.”

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