Bush signs stronger FOIA bill

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush yesterday signed a bill aimed at giving the
public and the media greater access to information about what the government is
doing. The new law toughens the Freedom of Information Act, the first such
makeover to the signature public-access law in a decade.

Bush signed the bill without comment in one of his final decisions of the

The legislation, known as the OPEN Government Act
of 2007 (S. 2488),
creates a system for the news media and public to track
the status of their FOIA requests. It establishes a hotline service for all
federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an
alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.

Agencies would be required to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA
requests. Nonproprietary information held by government contractors also would
be subject to the law.

The bill amounts to a congressional pushback against the Bush
administration's movement to greater secrecy since the terrorist attacks of

A month after the attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed
agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about
how doing so would affect national security. An earlier House version of the
bill, H.R.
contained a provision aimed at reversing Ashcroft's order and
restoring a presumption that records should be released on request unless there
was a finding that disclosure could do harm.

The bill that was signed into law, however, did not include this

“Whatever records that a government agency was legally entitled to withhold
before enactment of the 'OPEN Government Act' can still be withheld now that the
President has signed it,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American
Scientists Project on Government Secrecy said Jan. 2.

The omission of the provision from the final version of the bill prompted
criticism from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the House bill. When the Senate bill
was discussed in the House,
Waxman called the legislation “a good first
step,” but said it was “not as strong as the House-passed bill.”

“It does not include a provision which I thought was a key one establishing a
presumption that government records should be released to the public unless
there is a good reason to keep them secret,” he said.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., however, applauded the exclusion of the provision. “I
am pleased to note the provision repealing the so-called Ashcroft memorandum was
eliminated,” he said. “I think preservation of the Ashcroft policy is the right
policy to adopt in the current environment.”

The legislation cites Supreme Court decisions affirming a “strong presumption in favor of disclosure” and states that “disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the act.”

Dozens of news organizations, including the Associated Press, supported the

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of the sponsors of the legislation,
said he was pleased that Bush had signed the bill.

“When I came to the Senate five years ago, I pledged to bring a little Texas
sunshine to Washington, D.C.,” Cornyn said in a statement. “This new law does
just that. It holds politicians and bureaucrats accountable in an age of
ever-expanding size and scope of government. It strengthens our democracy by
building on the ideals this nation was founded upon — the people's fundamental
right to know.”

Another sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement: “These
reforms are a ray of sunshine and a turning point toward greater

Last year, the government received 21.4 million requests for information
under the 40-year-old law, according to statistics provided by the Justice
Department. The government processed nearly the same number of requests, which
was almost 1.5 million more than it processed during the previous fiscal year,
according to the department.