Freeing the Freedom of Information Act

Under Bush, Freedom of Information Act restrictions were routine, often bizarre and sometimes outright laughable.
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On his first day in office President Obama unleashed the hounds, freeing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from the restrictive bounds placed on its use by the Bush Administration and fulfilling a campaign promise with single stroke of his pen.

The first item my organization suggested to the Obama Transition Team in our policy memo regarding Open Government, was to commit to a transparent administration by first restoring the usefulness of FOIA by rescinding the directives as set in a memo by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. And indeed, that is exactly what Obama proceeded to.

For a long time now there has been too much secrecy in this city...[t]hat era is now over," Obama said as he abolished the ever-tightening noose the Bush Administration had put on access to government information.

For the last eight years, government agencies were encouraged to thwart FOIA requests twisting the broad language in the Act in favor of secrecy. Under Bush, FOIA restrictions were routine, often bizarre and sometimes outright laughable. For example, the names of drugs forced used on the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay were withheld because releasing the information would be considered a violation of "personal privacy". Schedules of agency officials were deemed off-limits and information once widely available on the Internet, such as information about toxic chemical spills, essentially became invisible to scrutiny.

Not anymore. "Hot damn! This is astonishing. And wonderful," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a Chicago Sun-Times article. "You know there's a new sheriff in town."

Promises are nice, acting on those promises is great, blind enthusiasm, not so much. All we have right now a pledge to reinvigorate FOIA, the real evaluation of this action comes 120 days from now when the government releases the details implementing those changes; I'm reserving my own final approval until I read those details.

By opening his Administration to such scrutiny from the very start, Obama is giving a powerful signal that he intends to deliver on his promise to reach out beyond the normal, politicized feedback loop that most president's fall victim too. Journalists have already cheered the move; FOIA has been a time tested investigative tool for reporters. But this move is bigger than mainstream media. With the rise of citizen journalism, social media and a blogosphere that crackles with seemingly unbridled enthusiasm and energy, the use of FOIA in a Web 2.0 environment will certainly rewrite the expectations of government accountability.

But there is a ghost in this new transparent machine. All this spirit of openness will amount to little more than a photo-op if this new era of citizen journalists and energized Internet users doesn't do their part and actually take advantage of the powerful process locked inside FOIA.

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