WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In an ongoing effort to lift the veil of secrecy that's hung over the federal government since 9/11, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced a series of bills that would make it harder for government agencies to put documents beyond public reach. Those bills include one that would impose penalties on government officials who defy document requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and would also create a federal arbiter to rule on FOIA disputes. Another bill, which passed the Senate several weeks ago, would put sharper restrictions on future FOIA exemptions.
"The American people deserve our ongoing diligence in limiting undue exemptions that only serve to clog the plumbing and limit the public's right to know," said Leahy, following the passage of a stand-alone bill that was part of the "OPEN Government Act of 2005." That broader legislation, which Leahy introduced in February with Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), attempts to "repair the damage inflicted upon FOIA" by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Government agencies can claim certain exemptions under FOIA if releasing those documents would compromise national security, disclose industry secrets, or violate a government employee's personal privacy.
Nevertheless, in each year since 2001, government agencies have set new records for secrecy. In 2004, federal employees classified documents a whopping 15.6 million times, 10 percent more than the year before, according to the nonprofit group, http://OpenTheGovernment.org . Government officials are also choosing to keep their secrets longer than ever. In two-thirds of those cases, government officials classified their documents for at least 10 years.
Existing law contains no deadline for complying with a FOIA request. Although government officials must tell FOIA requesters within 20 days whether they intend to comply with the request, actually producing those documents can take anywhere from days to years.
"I often talk with [FOIA] requesters in the nonprofit sector who spend a couple of years going back and forth with an agency before they finally decide that litigating is their only option," says Tara Magner, Leahy's FOIA expert. The OPEN Government Act would "put some teeth into that 20-day deadline and say to the government, 'You've got to do better,'" she adds.
In fact, several FOIA requests have been pending for decades. A 2003 audit conducted by the National Security Archive found that the oldest FOIA request dates back to November 9, 1987. A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle requested documents from the FBI on its intelligence-gathering operations at the University of California-Berkeley during the 1970s. The FBI has since turned over about 200,000 pages of documents related to that inquiry, but the bureau has reportedly withheld 17,000 other pages.
Magner isn't willing to point fingers at which federal agencies are the worse offenders. She says that most FOIA requests are filed with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and are usually filled within a matter of days. But other entities, such as the Air Force, have an abysmal record for FOIA compliance. In March, for example, the National Security Archive filed suit against the Air Force, claiming that it routinely ignores or loses document requests or allows them to languish while documents are destroyed or transferred to other agencies.