The Justice Department's Welcome Change on Access to Public Records

Saturday, March 28, 2009

DURING ITS eight years, the Bush administration treated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at best as a joke, at worst as an enemy. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft determined that the Justice Department would defend agency determinations to withhold information unless those decisions were found to "lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records." Translation: Agencies were empowered and even encouraged to resist compliance with FOIA, which was meant to provide citizens a reasonable means to obtain information about the workings of their government.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. rescinded the Ashcroft memorandum last week and in its place installed guidelines that should promote a more faithful application of the freedom of information law.

Mr. Holder's rules require that executive branch agencies assume information may be released unless "the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm" national security, personal privacy, privileged records or law enforcement interests. Information also must be withheld if dissemination is explicitly prohibited by law, such as in the case of classified documents.

Mr. Holder also exhorted agencies to consider providing partial disclosures when full disclosure is not possible. And he encourages them to "readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request." Doing so, he says, will reduce "the need for individualized requests and may help reduce existing backlogs."

Every administration -- and this one is no exception -- must guard against release of documents or information that could undermine the nation's security. But Mr. Holder should be commended for restoring a sense of balance and integrity to one of the most important tools available for holding government accountable.

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