- The President didn't ask the networks for television
time. The attorney general didn't hold a press conference. The media didn't
report any dramatic change in governmental policy. As a result, most
had no idea that one of their most precious freedoms disappeared on Oct.
- Yet it happened. In a memo that slipped beneath the
radar, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft vigorously urged federal
to resist most Freedom of Information Act requests made by American
- Passed in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal,
the Freedom of Information Act has been hailed as one of our greatest
reforms. It allows ordinary citizens to hold the government accountable
by requesting and scrutinizing public documents and records. Without it,
journalists, newspapers, historians and watchdog groups would never be
able to keep the government honest. It was our post-Watergate reward, the
act that allows us to know what our elected officials do, rather than what
they say. It is our national sunshine law, legislation that forces agencies
to disclose their public records and documents.
- Yet without fanfare, the attorney general simply quashed
the FOE. The Department of Justice did not respond to numerous calls from
The Chronicle to comment on the memo.
- So, rather than asking federal officials to pay special
attention when the public's right to know might collide with the
need to safeguard our security, Ashcroft instead asked them to consider
whether "institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests
could be implicated by disclosure of the information." Even more
- "When you carefully consider FOIA requests and
to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the
of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis
or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other
agencies to protect other important records."
- Somehow, this memo never surfaced. When coupled with
President Bush's Nov. 1 executive order that allows him to seal all
records since 1980, the effect is positively chilling.
- In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we have witnessed a flurry
of federal orders designed to beef up the nation's security. Many
measures have carefully balanced the public's right to know with the
responsibility to protect its citizens.
- Who, for example, would argue against taking detailed
plans of nuclear reactors, oil refineries or reservoirs off the Web?
- No one. Almost all Americans agree that the nation's
security is our highest priority.
- Yet half the country is also worried that the government
might use the fear of terrorism as a pretext for protecting officials from
- Now we know that they have good reason to worry. For
more than a quarter of a century, the Freedom of Information Act has
the public's right to know what the government, its agencies and its
have done. It has substituted transparency for secrecy and we, as a
have benefited from the truths that been extracted from public
- Consider, for example, just a few of the recent
-- obtained through FOIA requests -- that newspapers and nonprofit watchdog
groups have been able to publicize during the last few months:
- - The Washington-based Environmental Working Group, a
nonprofit organization, has been able to publish lists of recipients who
have received billions of dollars in federal farm subsidies. Their Web
site, <http://www.ewg.orgwww.ewg.org, has not only embarrassed the
industry, but also allowed the public to realize that federal money --
intended to support small family farmers -- has mostly enhanced the profits
of large agricultural corporations.
- - The Charlotte Observer has been able to reveal how
the Duke Power Co., an electric utility, cooked its books so that it
exceeding its profit limits. This creative accounting scheme prevented
the utility from giving lower rates to 2 million customers in North
and South Carolina.
- - USA Today was able to uncover and publicize a
pattern of misconduct among the National Guard's upper echelon that has
continued for more than a decade. Among the abuses documented in public
records are the inflation of troop strength, the misuse of taxpayer money,
incidents of sexual harassment and the theft of life-insurance payments
intended for the widows and children of Guardsmen.
- - The National Security Archive, a private
research group, has been able to obtain records that document an
event in our history. It turns out that in 1975, President Gerald Ford
and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave Indonesian strongman Suharto
the green light to invade East Timor, an incursion that left 200,000 people
- - By examining tens of thousands of public records, the
Associated Press has been able to substantiate the long-held African
allegation that white people -- through threats of violence, even murder
-- cheated them out of their land. In many cases, government officials
simply approved the transfer of property deeds. Valued at tens of million
of dollars, some 24,000 acres of farm and timber lands, once the property
of 406 black families, are now owned by whites or corporations.
- These are but a sample of the revelations made possible
by recent FOIA requests. None of them endanger the national security. It
is important to remember that all classified documents are protected from
FOIA requests and unavailable to the public.
- Yet these secrets have exposed all kinds of official
skullduggery, some of which even violated the law. True, such revelations
may disgrace public officials or even result in criminal charges, but that
is the consequence -- or shall we say, the punishment -- for violating
the public trust.
- No one disputes that we must safeguard our national
All of us want to protect our nation from further acts of terrorism. But
we must never allow the public's right to know, enshrined in the Freedom
of Information Act, to be suppressed for the sake of official
- Ruth Rosen is an editorial writer for the San Francisco
- First published January 7, 2002