Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Some Wise Words From A Wise Man

Former President Jimmy Carter has done more good for this world since he left office than most humans do in a lifetime. He's always worth listening to, even when you may disagree with some of his premises. Somehow I missed this op-ed piece he originally wrote for the Washington Post. Fortunately, I caught it today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. His comments on the Freedom of Information Act is especially timely these days, and not just because the anniversary of the Act was just last week.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) turned 40 last week. But this is no time to celebrate the right to information in our country. Our government leaders have become increasingly obsessed with secrecy. Obstructionist policies and deficient practices have ensured that many important public documents and official actions remain hidden from our view.

The events in our nation today -- war, civil rights violations, spiraling energy costs, campaign finance and lobbyist scandals -- dictate the growing need and citizens' desire for access to public documents. A poll conducted last year found that 70 percent of Americans are either somewhat or very concerned about government secrecy. This is understandable when the U.S. government uses at least 50 designations to restrict unclassified information and created 81 percent more "secrets" in 2005 than in 2000, according to the watchdog coalition OpenTheGovernment.org.

Moreover, the response to FOIA requests often does not satisfy the transparency objectives or provisions of the law, which, for example, mandates an answer to information requests within 20 working days. According to the National Security Archives 2003 report, median response times may be as long as 905 working days at the Department of Agriculture and 1,113 working days at the Environmental Protection Agency. The only recourse for unsatisfied requesters is to appeal to the U.S. District Court, which is costly and unavailable to most people. Policies that favor secrecy, implementation that does not satisfy the law, lack of a mandated oversight body and inaccessible enforcement mechanisms have put the United States behind much of the world in the right to information.

...Nearly 70 countries have passed legislation to ensure the right to request and receive public documents, the vast majority in the past decade and many in middle- and low-income nations. While the United States retreats, the international trend toward transparency grows, with laws often more comprehensive and effective than our own. Unlike FOIA, which covers only the executive branch, modern legislation includes all branches of power and some private companies. Moreover, new access laws establish ways to monitor implementation and enforce the right, holding agencies accountable for providing information quickly and fully.
[Emphasis added]

President Carter strongly urges updating the act itself and putting some teeth in the enforcement of its provisions so the average citizen can be sure that his or her request for that information is honored fully, on time, and without the necessity of expensive litigation. While this regime may resist such sunlight, we are entitled to it, and we should be bringing pressure to bear on Congress to bring it to us.


Post a Comment

<< Home