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Sunshine Week forecast: Mostly cloudy, thin rays of hope

By Sen. Patrick Leahy

Posted March 12, 2007

The annual Sunshine Week comes after another year of bleak news for the public's right to know. But this year, there also are a few tenuous rays of hope on the horizon.

For six years we have been treading water against a tide of White House antagonism toward open and transparent government.

By using ideology to trump science, muzzling government scientists and experts, reclassifying public documents, unprecedented use of presidential signing statements to undercut the public's right to know that the laws are being faithfully executed, and undermining key information access routes like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the administration has shown a corrosive disdain for the free press and the public and unparalleled efforts to expand government secrecy. It should gall every taxpaying citizen, for example, that Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute and a leading authority on climate change, was kept away from events where he could share his research insights with the public — the same U.S. public that pays the bills for the research Hansen has been doing.

Ironically, at a time when the federal government is intent on creating more and more databanks to collect more and more information about every American, it has become harder and harder for the American people to learn what their government is up to.

These have also been fragile times for FOIA, our bedrock open government law. Now in its fourth decade, FOIA faces challenges like never before. FOIA shines disinfecting light on the bad policies and abuses that the government would rather keep hidden from public view. We can depend on government agencies to tell us when they're doing things right. We need FOIA to find out when they're not. FOIA is the public's indispensable accountability tool.

Last year the public learned through a FOIA request filed by several human rights organizations that the Bush Administration has kept vital facts secret about human rights violations and prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Other FOIA'd documents revealed extensive contacts between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Bush administration, including meetings with former White House official David Safavian.

Yet FOIA's erosion continues. A recent study by OpentheGovernment.org found that FOIA requests continue to rise, while federal agencies still are unable to keep pace. And the Government Accountability Office reports that federal agencies had 43 percent more pending FOIA requests in 2006 than during 2002.

We have pushed and pushed for better FOIA compliance, and the Bush administration finally responded with modest efforts that fall far short of what's needed. More than a year after the president's directive to government agencies to improve their FOIA services, the huge backlogs remain. A recent study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that the first 13 federal agencies to report FOIA data for 2006 reported slightly higher FOIA backlogs than the year before. Even more troubling, the report also found that the percentage of FOIA requestors who actually got at least some of the information that they requested fell by 31 percent.

All the more reason for Congress to step in. And here is where some rays of hope are beginning to break through. The people of this country last November sent the rubber stamp Congress packing, and the new Congress is beginning to do real oversight again.

This week I will once again join Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, in a bipartisan effort to reinvigorate FOIA, by reintroducing the OPEN Government Act — a collection of common sense reforms designed to update FOIA and to reduce processing delays. Our bill was drafted after extensive consultation with those who use FOIA to make information available to the public, including news organizations, bloggers, librarians, and public interest organizations across the political spectrum. Our bill reaffirms FOIA's central premise — that government information belongs to the people of the United States.

In our state we have a proud history of caring deeply about good government, government transparency and conscientious journalism, which helps explain Vermonters' strong reaction to the dismissal and shabby treatment of Chris Graff, the former Vermont bureau chief of the Associated Press.

Sunshine Week is a chance to take stock and to recommit to defending the public's right to know. Without a vibrant and reinvigorated FOIA, citizens can be kept in the dark about key policy decisions that directly affect their lives. Without open government, citizens cannot make informed choices at the ballot box. Without access to public documents and a vibrant free press, government decisions can be made in the shadows — often in collusion with special interests — without accountability. And once eroded, these rights are hard to win back.

A free, open and accountable democracy is part of our heritage as citizens of this great and good country. Many have fought and died to preserve it for us. To each new generation falls the duty to renew and recharge this inheritance, so that future generations of citizens can have it, too.

Democrat Patrick Leahy, of Middlesex, is Vermont’s senior senator.