Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bush 'kills' Freedom of Information Act compliance officer

Buried on page A17 of Wednesday's Washington Post is a bit of a non-surprise: President George W. Bush has effectively killed a position monitoring compliance with government efforts to release documents.

Late last year, Washington watchdogs won over a reluctant President Bush, who agreed to sign a law enforcing better compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

"But in his budget request this week," the Post's Elizabeth Williamson writes, "Bush proposed shifting a newly created ombudsman's position from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Department of Justice. Because the ombudsman would be the chief monitor of compliance with the new law, that move is akin to killing the critical function, some members of Congress and watchdog groups say."

"Justice represents the agencies when they're sued over FOIA . . . It doesn't make a lot of sense for them to be the mediator," staff lawyer for the National Security Archive Kristin Adair told the Post. The group has filed suit against the White House to force it to preserve e-mails relating to Iraq and the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame Bush's spokesman says may have been lost.

Also bemoaning the revelation was Senate Democratic Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT).

"Once again, the White House has shown they intend to act contrary to the intent of Congress," Leahy told Williamson in a statement. "I will continue to work through the appropriations process to make sure that the National Archives and Records Administration has the necessary resources and funds to comply with the OPEN Government Act, and we will continue to work in Congress to make necessary reforms to the Freedom of Information Act."

The White House said, through a spokesman, that "only the Department of Justice, as the government's lead on FOIA issues and mediation in legal matters, is properly situated and empowered to mediate issues between requestors and the federal government."

The law Bush signed last year -- the Open Government Act of 2007 -- requires that government agencies released information Americans request within 20 days of face fines. Bush inked the law New Year's Eve. The ombudsman's office would hear disputes over unmet requests and monitor the agencies facing examinations.

Under the planned deployment, the ombudsman was to be part of the National Archives, where most documents eventually end up and are usually sent out from.

The Bush Administration is already under pressure from Congress for its alleged politicization of the Justice Department. Nine US Attorneys were fired for what Democrats say were "political" reasons; the White House has refused to allow aides to testify to Congressional committees about what they know.

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