Bush tries to sabotage openness

A Times Editorial
Published February 9, 2008

In his new book, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis says that one hallmark of the Bush administration is that it has worked "to exclude press scrutiny - and hence public accountability - by the most sweeping secrecy in American history." This intense secrecy has been borne out in the administration's open hostility toward requests under the Freedom of Information Act and in the multitude of ways it has attempted to shut down public access to information.

Now the president has devised a new strategy to shield his presidency from scrutiny: ignore the law. He has quietly used his proposed fiscal year 2009 budget to alter a newly passed public records law.

Congress passed the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act (OPEN Government Act) by such an overwhelming vote that President Bush had no choice but to sign it into law just weeks ago. It was needed because the old Freedom of Information Act had not been giving citizens ready access to government documents. Waits for a response could stretch for years and made it impractical.

The new law is designed to give those seeking information effective tools and remedies when their request is denied or unreasonably delayed. One of the more important features is the creation of a new Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration. Here, an ombudsman's office would mediate disputes and assist people whose requests have stalled.

But Bush is creating mischief by recommending in his budget proposal to move the new office to the Justice Department. Having this office under the direction of the Justice Department is a sure-fire way to transform it from a fair cop to an advocate for government denials. This is the same department charged with defending federal agencies that reject FOIA requests. And ever since John Ashcroft was attorney general, FOIA denials have been roundly encouraged.

Under the OPEN Government Act, the ombudsman's office is purposely situated at the National Archives to promote impartiality in mediating contested requests. Having it there gives citizens more confidence that they will be treated fairly.

This president has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for openness in government. Bush is trying to sabotage the new law before the ink is dry, and Congress should not let him get away with it.