Don't bury FOIA

Thomas R. Temin

Occasionally I have to give the family greyhound a pill. Rather than sticking it down his gullet and having him spit it out, I encase it in tasty cheese, hoping he won't notice. But sometimes he catches on, and I find a sticky pill lying discarded somewhere in the kitchen..

Attorney General John Ashcroft's Oct. 12 memo, giving the administration's guidance to agencies on interpreting the Freedom of Information Act, is like a bitter pill for advocates of openness.

This pill is also encased in cheese. Ashcroft's memo, at www.usdoj.gov/04foia/011012.htm, urges agencies to make privacy a major consideration in withholding information'not only privacy but also national security.

Who would argue against privacy in our paranoid age? To cite national security as the reason for withholding information might have had a slightly comic, Nixonian sound'until Sept. 11. We now know that the bad guys really do have evil designs.
But in reality the policy represents a predisposition to withhold information, unlike that of the Clinton administration, which had a stated presumption of disclosure.

The proliferation of agency and congressional Web sites plus the e-government movement created a culture of disclosure.

Citizens have a new and higher level of expectation of what government information should be easily available.

Thus the change in policy disappoints those seeking information from government and, I suspect, those toiling in government to serve them.

It is not the bureaucracy's job to defy an administration policy. But those who make or carry out policy must also keep in mind'as Ashcroft points out'that the FOIA itself hasn't changed. The allowable exemptions to disclosure have always been there. Like the Federal Acquisition Regulation or the Talmud, the FOIA allows or disallows much, depending on which lens you view it through.

No one wants to be the guy who gave a Bin Laden the information to do evil. But I urge information managers to use their discretion to support openness and not secrecy.

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