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Reopening Government

Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A18

OPENNESS IN government has diminished during the Bush administration. Classification actions rose 75 percent between 2001 and 2004. Immigration authorities kept secret the names of hundreds of detainees rounded up after Sept. 11, as did military authorities for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Legal memorandums authorizing key tactics in the war on terrorism were needlessly kept secret. The administration has stiffed Congress on oversight requests across a wide range of areas, and it has aggressively sought to withhold material -- even such obviously nonsensitive data as aggregate intelligence spending from the late 1940s -- under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some secrecy is inevitable during wartime, but that's not the whole story; too often the Bush administration has viewed it as a positive value.

It is, consequently, encouraging to see a bipartisan consensus slowly emerging that open government needs a helping hand. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing last week on a bill by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to bolster FOIA. The act creates a presumption that government documents are available to the public on request, subject to a limited number of exemptions. But over time, because of congressional amendments and judicial interpretations, the exemptions have sometimes seemed to swallow up the presumption.

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The Cornyn-Leahy bill would not fix that problem, but it would make useful improvements. It would clarify timetables for agencies to respond to requests, create penalties for capricious denials, authorize the payment of attorneys' fees for people who prevail in litigation under the law and modernize agency processing of requests. Another bill that Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Leahy have introduced would establish a commission to study the FOIA delays and make recommendations for improvements. An important separate bill introduced by Mr. Leahy would close a major loophole in the law Congress created when it formed the Department of Homeland Security. These bills are encouraging if they signal new bipartisan attention to the erosion of FOIA and of openness more generally.

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