Choosing secrecy over the public’s rights

JAMES H. SMITH

The Bush administration, the most secretive society since Skull & Bones, has shut out the American people once again.

After President Bush signed into law just a few weeks ago modest changes to the federal Freedom of Information Act, his administration took one of its best innovations and shuffled it off to Buffalo.

The administration’s plan “violates both the explicit text of the Open Government Act and its legislative intent,” said U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, the sponsors of the act.

The law created a new ombudsman’s office that can mediate disputes between citizens and the government over the release of information. The law signed by Mr. Bush placed that office in the national Archive and Records Administration. But lo and behold last week the administration squirreled away that new office in the Justice Department, which would effectively gut its very purpose. This latest outrage against open government was discovered on page 239 of the appendix to the president’s massive budget proposal. It formally eliminates the new Office of Government Information Services within the National Archives and moves it to Justice.

To put an ombudsman’s office charged with mediating secrecy issues in the Justice Department is quite simply a bad joke, or more precisely a slap in the face of the people’s right to know. The Justice Department argues to keep government documents secret.

Congress “sought to make the FOIA ombudsman independent of the Department of Justice … to enhance the office’s independence, as well as to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest,” Sens. Leahy and Cornyn wrote last week to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

They “strongly oppose” the administration’s unannounced effort to alter “the essential character of (the ombudsman) as an independent, disinterested office serving FOIA requestors.”

The Sunshine in Government Initiative advocated for the changes to the FOI act. It is a consortium of 10 news media organizations: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Sunshine Initiative has written the bipartisan leaders of the House Appropriations Committee seeking to reverse the administration’s attempt to thwart the new reform. The independent ombudsman office creates “a potentially valuable and effective tool to help the public reduce long delays and avoid costly litigation by mediating disputes that can arise when the public seeks documents held by government,” it said.

The White House claims that the Department of Justice’s office of Information and Privacy serves some functions applicable to the new ombudsman’s functions, but Justice can’t act as an advocate for FOIA requesters, or even a neutral mediator, because that creates an obvious conflict with Justice’s role as the government’s lawyer defending FOI denials.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that with one hand George Bush signs a new law helping citizens to see the workings of government and with the other hand tries to snuff out the new modicum of light it would shed.

Secret prisons, secret meetings, secret historical documents. He is the most secretive president we have ever elected. He makes a mockery of “we the people.”

Whether you love his war or don’t, whether you think he’s a draft-dodging chickenhawk or the reincarnation of George Patton, whether you are liberal or conservative, as a citizen of a democracy you cannot condone his efforts to keep the people at bay and in the dark.

Was Jefferson writing gibberish as we threw off the yoke of England’s George III? Do we not believe that “all men” are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? Did he not write, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”?

How can the people give consent if we don’t know what the government is doing? The president receives his power from us – “the governed.”

Be wary of a president or a governor or a mayor or any public official who thwarts your basic right to know what he is doing.

At the very least, write U.S. Reps. Chris Shays and Rosa DeLauro and tell them not to approve the president’s budget until this skullduggery is pulled out of there.

Mr. Shays:

1126 Longworth Building

Washington, DC 20515

Online at: www.house.gov/shays/

Ms. DeLauro

2262 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

Online at: www.house.gov/delauro/