Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Last week was Sunshine Week, a national effort by media organizations to promote openness in government. I knew about it only because the Sacramento Bee had a couple of editorials on the issue as it pertains to the California State government. One of those editorials decried the fact that even though state regulations require agencies to post pertinent information on web sites, those sites are incomplete and difficult to navigate, increasing the opacity.

At this critical time in the state's history, when the public is being asked to pay higher taxes, it's especially important for the state and local governments to be transparent. Before voters approve measures to give the state more money, they want to know how their money is being spent and to what effect. That information is in databases the public pays to maintain.

Open government is not just a benefit for reporters in pursuit of news stories. It's an essential element for all citizens of a healthy democracy. Through freedom of information laws, everyone has a right to find out how government is working and to hold public officials accountable.

The editorial sets forth nicely just what state sunshine laws are all about. The problem at the federal level, however, is more complicated because of a system of classification now run amok. The New York Times published an editorial yesterday (which may have been a belated nod to Sunshine Week) which lambastes the hiding of information by agencies through spurious designations which imply that the information must be restricted in its dissemination for security reasons.

By last count, the federal government employs 107 different categories of restricted information — one off-limits category zanily pronounces, “sensitive but unclassified.” This muddle of mislabeling seems designed not to protect legitimate secrets but to empower bureaucrats. The end result has been to greatly blunt the Freedom of Information Act’s mandate to let the public in on the business of government, plain and simple.

The House has just approved a measure to end this plague of pseudoclassification. Its backers say it is not just a boon for the public, but an attempt to promote “a common language within government.” There are so many taboos that agencies are even having trouble understanding one another’s rubber-stamp restrictions. ...

According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Steve Driehaus, Democrat of Ohio, there were 362,000 F.O.I.A. requests last year, and almost a third of them still remain to be processed because of overclassification. The bill requires classifiers to be trained for the task and to put their IDs on what they deem out of bounds, subject to inspector general review.

While the St. Peter Principle ("give a janitor a key and he thinks he's St. Peter") may be at work, the last administration relied on such secrecy to promote its own agendas. It is no wonder that so many F.O.I.A. requests remain unanswered. That was the intention. There is no telling at this point just how our government was subverted to enrich some favored campaign contributers or to gut regulations designed to protect the health and welfare of the citizens. We may never know if the current administration persists in its view that it is better to look forward than to actually learn from the past. That's why this proposal is so very necessary.

Congressman Driehaus's bill, HR 1323, has been passed by the House, received in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. If one of your senators serves on that committee, make a call and urge him or her to pass it out of committee to the entire Senate for a vote.

Then the rest of us need to get our typing and dialing fingers busy to make sure the bill becomes law.

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