Would the New OPEN Government Act Really Open Anything?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 7:44 AM PST

After the House on Tuesday passed the OPEN Government Act to bolster the Freedom of Information Act and sent the bill to George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed,

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has a vital purpose: to inform American citizens about the conduct of their government. However, the Bush Administration has greatly expanded the veil of secrecy and undermined the Freedom of Information Act. The Administration's actions run counter to the values of our democracy, the public's right to know, and the ability of American citizens to hold their government accountable. The passage of the OPEN Government Act takes a first step toward strengthening FOIA and restoring transparency and accountability to our government.

FOIA has long been broken--even before Bush. It sometimes takes years--even a decade--to get a FOIA request fulfilled. And, of course, much information is often withheld. I've had the State Department respond to requests nine years after I've submitted them--and long after I had any need for the documents. And recently I asked the Department of Interior for records related to a contract covering computer services provided to Vice President Dick Cheney's office by a company run by a fellow who paid more than $1 million in bribes to Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. (Don't ask why the Interior Department was involved.) I was told the material would be withheld under one of FOIA's many elastic exemptions. So will the new legislation make any real difference?

For an answer, I turned to Steven Aftergood, who produces Secrecy News. He says:

The new legislation makes several valuable procedural changes. It will increase pressure on agencies to answer FOIA requests in weeks rather than years. It will make it easier for requesters to track FOIA requests and to win fee waivers. It will strengthen the position of those requesters who litigate denials of their requests.
On the other hand, it does not alter agencies' ability to withhold information, which is of course the heart of the process. Whatever was withheld from requesters previously can still be withheld. So even if the law is faithfully implemented, it could just mean speedier denials.

Well, at least I won't have to wait so long to be turned down.

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