The very title of a now 41-year-old law — the Freedom of Information Act — sounds naïve in today’s Washington, where government secrecy has become an even higher and darker art under the Bush administration.
The open-government law, known as FOIA, should be one of the chief tools for citizens to find out what’s actually happening. For that, citizens’ requests for information would have to be answered. Instead, FOIA requests have disappeared into the bureaucratic maw for up to 20 years with no answer for why the statutory 20-day deadline has become such a Dickensian maze of delay and frustration.
Call it reform or call it revenge, but Congress has just passed a measure to tackle glaring flaws in the FOIA process. With overwhelming bipartisan support, the measure would:
- Prod stricter deadlines with a numerical tracking system so citizens could follow their requests like (lost) package deliveries.
- Establish clear penalties for foot-dragging, including repayment of attorney fees for applicants found suffering the run-around at recalcitrant agencies.
- Create an ombudsman office at the National Archives to mediate disputes over requests, which currently are rejected outright in a full third of the cases.
- Ensure that information records held by private government contractors can no longer be kept off-limits to FOIA requests.