House panel’s pointed letter to Justice sends impatient message on #FOIA

In a renewed and welcome spirit of bipartisanship, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) asking pointed questions about OIP’s actions to encourage agencies to comply with FOIA by reducing backlogs, reigning in the use of statutory exemptions and updating FOIA regulations.  We’re especially appreciative that Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) mentioned a database of the statutory exemptions to FOIA that we compiled and ProPublica published a while ago.

This is a great time for FOIA because so much has evolved since Congress enacted the 2007 FOIA amendments (pdf) five years ago. FOIA Online is now a realistic option for agencies to go digital with their FOIA operations while realizing huge savings for the federal government, an important aspect to getting any legislation through Congress.

Congress could mandate that agencies move to FOIA Online as their current contracts for FOIA processing expire, invest the savings from the move to a shared service to improving FOIA.  Improvements could include developing further the FOIA Online system, targeting efforts to improve FOIA processing and reduce backlogs and delays, and quickly convening a FOIA Delays Commission to compile and identify other areas for improvements.

There are many problems with FOIA administration today and many areas for improvement.  Some require executive branch action while others would require legislation.  Any legislative actions around FOIA will have attract the support of Senate and House leaders, a growing number of whom want to see the Freedom of Information Act inform the American public while protecting what deserves protection and serve as a dependable tool for obtaining from government vital information in a timely, efficient and impartial manner.

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Senate drops controversial Title V proposals, passes FY13 intel authorization bill (S. 3454)

The nine members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative are pleased the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454) does not include proposals that would have curtailed the flow of information to the public about national security and foreign affairs. The media takes seriously the obligation to consider potential harms from disclosures of sensitive information while reporting the news. These proposals simply went too far in cutting off vital information to the public about world events and national security issues and had not been subject to adequate consideration by Congress.
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Senate drops anti-leaks proposals

The nine members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative are pleased Senate negotiators dropped controversial proposals in the Intelligence  Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454) that would have harmed news reporting on national security and foreign affairs.

The media takes seriously the obligation to consider potential harms from disclosures of sensitive information while reporting the news. These proposals simply went too far in cutting off vital information to the public about world events and national security issues and had not been subject to adequate consideration by Congress.

What they are saying: Criticism of anti-leaks provisions of intel authorization (S. 3454)

Criticism of sections 505 and 506 of S. 3454, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (emphases added):

The legislation would end contacts that often benefit both the government and the public by allowing the exchange of accurate information about vital national security issues and intelligence activities, including abuses requiring attention. As executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, I know firsthand that such conversations also help the news media avoid publishing information that, inadvertently, might harm national security.

Without access to knowledgeable career officials, it would be much more difficult for the news media to determine the accuracy of information or whether its publication or broadcast could truly harm national security.

Especially in times of war, declared or undeclared, it is important to maintain the right balance between accountability and national security.

 –Washington Post op-ed by former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., December 6, 2012

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Senate could approve anti-leaks measures as early as today

As early as today the Senate could vote to fundamentally alter the flow of news to the public about national security and foreign affairs by passing unprecedented anti-leaks proposals.  With only a few days to pass its annual intelligence authorization bill, leaders of the Senate leaders have discussed a plan to pass by unanimous consent as soon as today a modified package of the anti-leaks changes that would include the most problematic sections from the media perspective (Sections 505 and 506).  If approved, the U.S. House would have to approve the new measures.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative is highly concerned that the Senate may approve these measures with no significant changes.  If passed, these provisions could dramatically alter the flow of news to the public on matters concerning national security and foreign affairs.

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Intel Committee’s anti-leaks proposals a threat to think tanks & public discourse

Think tanks could have a hard time finding experts able to contribute to policy debates if anti-leaks proposals now before the Senate are enacted into law.  These proposals are ill-considered, relatively unvetted, vague, overreaching (and under-reaching at the same time) and require significant further consideration by Congress before moving forward, much less passage.  We hope that think tanks will join those already seeking the removal of Title V from the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454).

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Damaging anti-leaks provisions passing tonight or tomorrow?

We understand the Senate may vote tonight to pass modified versions of Sections 505 and 506 as part of the intelligence authorization bill (S. 3454) now before the Senate.

While we have not seen the text of proposed changes, or even heard a general description of the changes, the Senate should not vote on these provisions, even in modified form, until the language that is proposed can be carefully considered.

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