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The Internet: The Promise and the Perils
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A Boom in Government Information

Bipartisan Push for Openness

The bipartisan push for openness may result in a new era for citizen access to government information. “The public can help that push gather momentum by encouraging their representatives in government to get behind it, by calling for the heads of agencies to enforce the Clinton administration’s disclosure policy and by learning about and using the FOIA,” said Kendrick Moxon, FOIA attorney.

The Clinton administration’s new policy of openness has put some muscle back into the Freedom of Information Act. Under the president’s direction, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a memorandum in October 1993 stating that the Department of Justice would no longer represent agencies in FOIA litigation simply because the information could legally be withheld under the act. The agency would have to show that actual harm would result if the information were released. But many still see room for improvement.

Author and attorney Alexander Charns explained that while the Clinton policy change has resulted in the FBI releasing some documents to him during the course of ongoing FOIA litigation, the same cannot be said of the FBI’s routine processing of FOIA requests.

“Certainly we have received documents which the agency claimed were released because of the new Clinton policy,” Charns told Freedom. “On the other hand, we have not seen any change in the glacial response from the FBI in the pre-litigation stage. The slow response is the same.” Charns feels the problem consists of attitudes within the concerned agencies.

“With the Department of Justice, the policy is in place, but it would take maybe another administration for the attitudes to trickle down to the FOIA people&,#148; he said. “For example, for years the FBI has refused to check cross-referenced files for documents sought in FOIA requests. They say they won’t do this until they are caught up, which never occurs. This policy is still continuing today.”

Dan Metcalf, co-director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy Act, agrees that “the attitudes at the agency level are very important, not only for the FOIA processors but for the people on which the FOIA staff rely, the actual custodians of the records.” He said that the Justice Department has circulated a memo to all agencies pointing out the need for a shift in attitude toward openness and has ordered the dissemination of this memo to all FOIA personnel and those who affect FOIA processing.

Metcalf explained that the new policy is intended to ensure that “agencies are mindful of the spirit as well as the letter of the act.” He pointed out that the policy change has led to reduced disputes in FOIA litigation. “In some cases,” he told Freedom, “less information is being contested after an agency makes a discretionary disclosure and, in others, so much is disclosed that the requester accepts those documents and agrees to dismiss the suit.”

According to the Justice Department, a number of FOIA litigation cases have been quickly resolved due to the new policy. These include Institute for Policy Studies v. National Security Agency, Church of Scientology International v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Weiner v. FBI and others.

Despite these successes, however, many requesters feel that although FOIA policy has been greatly improved, the actual changes have not yet caught up.

“There have been some small but noticeable improvements as a result of the new policy but nothing major” noted a FOIA attorney. “The problem is you have people who have spent years in an atmosphere of withholding information. It’s going to take some time before the policy change starts to have a significant effect on these people and it’s going to require the push, not just of the president and attorney general, but from the agency and department heads as well.” He said, “There certainly has been no change among the law enforcement agencies.”

Marquette University history professor Athan Theoharis, author of several books on the FBI using documents obtained through FOIA requests, has noticed no change in the way the bureau is processing his FOIA requests. “I have not received any new FBI documents for a very long time,” he told Freedom. “I have one request in on a very sensitive policy file and there has been no action on those documents for two years.”

Many issues remain to be resolved in citizens’ efforts to gain access to government information, and new issues are bound to appear as the flow of information increases.

Because no one wishes to take action to curb the free flow of data on the information superhighway, measures must be extended to make it possible for an individual to gain access to information covered under the Freedom of Information Act, but contained in electronic files.

Americans must understand what information is available to them and exercise their rights to obtain it. The current boom in government information was directly caused by such efforts from many individuals — inside and outside government.

Congress Makes Data Available on Internet

Late in 1994, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich charged U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers with the responsibility to make all important congressional information available on Internet.

With the assistance of the House Information Service (HIS) this project has been completed, allowing citizens to have direct access to congressional information either through HIS or through the Library of Congress. Under this program, citizens can access the Congressional Record, text of bills, pending amendments, the U.S. Code and committee schedules.

According to Rep. Ehler’s office, it is planned to add other items, such as vote information and committee reports. The Internet address for HIS is: gopher.house.gov.

The Internet address for the Library of Congress is: http://thomas.loc.gov.

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