By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
March 12, 2007
The law, first signed on the Fourth of July 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson and amended several times, has resulted in some of history's most important disclosures of government error, oversight and abuse.
But in recent years, agencies have cut in half or more the number of requests that result in disclosure of information, according to a study of federal compliance records from 2000 to 2006 by Scripps Howard.
At many agencies, it's now a rare event when people get documents that have not been censored by bureaucrats. Instead, authorities increasingly tell the public they can't find the records that people want to see.
Scholars, journalists, historians and the general public have used the Freedom of Information Act for decades to learn how government works and what records it maintains about individual citizens.
Among the historic disclosures brought to life because of the law:
- Discovery that FBI agents conducted illegal searches and surveillance of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
- Disclosure of federal records of gasoline tank fires involving crashed Ford Pintos, eventually contributing to the recall of 1.5 million vehicles in 1978.
- Release of thousands of Department of Defense records to Vietnam War veterans groups, raising concerns about the long-term health effects of a defoliant called Agent Orange used during the war.
- Revelation in 1971 of records from the Food and Drug Administration about cancer threats posed by Red Dye No. 2, contributing to the substance's ban in 1977.
There are growing indications that such disclosures may no longer be made when federal authorities receive similar Freedom of Information Act requests.
Key agencies have drastically reduced the number of so-called "total grants" of information issued under the act. A "total grant" means that a federal document is given to the public in its original form, without censoring or withholding of some portions.
One of the biggest declines is at the FBI, which issued unaltered documents in 1,284 Freedom of Information Act requests in 2000 and only 54 such grants last year. It was the lowest number of total grants on record for the FBI.
FBI officials say nothing's changed.
"I can say unequivocally that there is no change in the interpretation of that statute," said David Hardy, chief of the FBI's Record Dissemination Section. "There certainly is no policy here to release less information."
The number of partial grants, meaning release of censored records, declined at the FBI from 4,740 in 2000 to 2,432 last year. Hardy said this resulted from a backlog of requests six years ago that temporarily increased the number of releases.
But the bureau also is increasingly likely to tell citizens that it could find "no records" pertaining to their requests. Six years ago, 56 percent of all requests were denied because "no records" were found. Last year, that figure grew to 74 percent.
Some of the claims that records don't exist stretch credulity.
"I've got a letter here from ... the FBI that says they couldn't find anything on our request for information about al Qaeda," said Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University. "As in the vast majority of requests, they say they can't find anything."
Blanton, who catalogs federal documents for government scholars, said he takes the FBI at its word. The bureau has a truly lousy information index, he said.
To that, Hardy agrees. He admitted the bureau's search for documents about the FBI's widely acknowledged investigation into suspected al Qaeda ties to U.S. charities "wasn't as deep a search as it needed to be. We've reopened that case."
That disclosure came as a complete surprise to Blanton, who last year appealed the decision on his FOIA request because he was unhappy with the FBI's response. "The FBI hasn't told us that! That's great to know," Blanton said.
Hardy said the FBI will be more efficient when searching for Freedom of Information Act requests when it creates a new central records complex in Winchester, Va., in about three years. A new computer system will allow searches of all text within FBI files, not just searches of key words assigned to a record, Hardy said.
The pattern of declining FOIA grants is similar in many agencies.
The State Department issued total or partial grants of information in 54 percent of the requests it received in 2000 and in 35 percent last year. The Department of Commerce releases declined from 67 percent to 52 percent over the six years of the study, while the Securities and Exchange Commission's rate declined from 46 percent to 35 percent.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, releases of uncensored documents declined from 1,084 cases in 2000 to 334 last year. The percentage of requests resulting in any release, including censored documents, dropped from 68 percent to 50 percent during the six years.
"First and foremost, the CIA is not applying the Freedom of Information Act exemptions more stringently," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield.
He said that there are many reasons why the CIA is issuing fewer uncensored documents, including a backlog of cases six years ago because of requests from other federal agencies like the Office of Personnel Management which wanted CIA records when conducting background checks.
Mansfield said the CIA still issues a significant number of partial releases, more than 1,000 last year.
"The information we release in part is often quite substantial," Mansfield said. "We take out only the minimum we have to in order to protect classified information and national security."
Scholars and public information advocates are becoming concerned that federal authorities have become more restrictive toward Freedom of Information Act requests.
"There is no question the Bush administration is withholding more information than did previous administrations," concluded Wendell Cochran, a journalism professor at American University who has studied federal information compliance records for several years.
"One of the biggest issues is the growth in the reports that 'no records' have been located. These amount to administrative denials," Cochran said. "We've no idea whether a complete search is being made."
Scholars point to a memo released by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on Oct. 12, 2001, giving federal authorities new guidance in how to comply with freedom of information laws.
Ashcroft urged officials to consider the "institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of information." And he promised that if officials "decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decision unless they lack a sound legal basis."
"The government has been closing down all kinds of records and public access. The government has become, essentially, sneakier," concluded Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. "Hopefully, people are coming to realize that secrecy is rampant."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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