Washington Too many agencies are still holding their secrets close nine months after President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to open the flow of information to the public, advocates of access said Wednesday.
Some are trying to circumvent the 42-year-old Freedom of Information Act through special provisions slipped into legislation “without debate or public scrutiny,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said.
News organizations and media groups said new legislation was needed to limit how much information agencies may keep secret and for how long.
“The secrecy reflex at some agencies remains firmly in place,” said Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press. And FOIA still contains relatively weak penalties for those that don’t meet disclosure obligations, he said.
“We appreciate the change in policy direction, but the change hasn’t yet reached the street,” said Curley, testifying on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups.
The hearing was the first status report on the Office of Government Information Services, created by Congress this year at the National Archives and Records Administration to review the government’s compliance with open government laws and to mediate disputes with the public.
The office’s newly installed director, Miriam Nisbet, told the panel that she arrived a few weeks ago and is in the midst of hiring the first five employees.
The office was established by a bill from Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that made several changes in the law, including requirements to better track information requests and reduce processing delays.
Those changes kicked in just as President George W. Bush was leaving office after eight years of secrecy about how he was fighting terrorism.
Bush administration officials repeatedly testified before Congress that revealing techniques of finding potential terrorists abroad and on U.S. soil would compromise national security.
Obama’s first public act in office was to order more government transparency.
“In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” Obama said at the time, and information should not be withheld to avoid embarrassing public officials.
He revoked Bush’s November 2001 executive order allowing past presidents to exert executive privilege to keep some of their White House papers private. Obama also instructed federal agencies to be more responsive to FOIA requests.
Attorney General Eric Holder immediately began applying Obama’s call for a change of culture toward the presumption of disclosure, according to Thomas J. Perrelli, the Justice Department’s chief FOIA officer.
Curley said agencies are still trying to hide information sought by reporters, which isn’t much different from past years.