some good news (for a change)

Freedom of Information Reform Bill Passes Senate

Open Government Advocates Overcome Secret Hold;

Key Reforms Fix Delay Problems Identified by Archive Audits;

Better Tracking, Reporting, Processing Fees and Ombuds Office

For more information contact:
Thomas Blanton/Kristin Adair: 202/994-7000

Washington DC, August 4, 2007 – The United States Senate yesterday joined the House in passing bipartisan legislation that will fix several of the most glaring problems with the U.S. Freedom of Information Act that were identified in six government-wide audits of FOIA practice carried out by the National Security Archive. The legislation, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.), overcame a hold placed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Az) on behalf of Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department. It passed late Friday evening by unanimous consent, on the last day of the Congressional session before the August recess.

After a conference to reconcile provisions between the House and Senate versions, the new law will mandate tracking numbers for FOIA requests that take longer than 10 days to process so they will no longer fall through the cracks, require agencies to report more accurately to Congress on their FOIA programs, create a new ombuds office at the National Archives to mediate conflicts between agencies and requesters, clarify the purpose of FOIA to encourage dissemination of government information, and provide incentives to agencies to avoid litigation and processing delays.

“These are commonsense reforms that will finally force agencies to fix egregious backlogs and reporting problems,” said Archive staff counsel Kristin Adair. “But, remarkably, it took several congressional terms to get these straightforward adjustments into the law, with obstruction from the executive branch all along the way, including, ironically, a secret hold by a Senator acting at the behest of the Department of Justice.”

Similar legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly during Sunshine Week in March 2007, but progress on the Senate bill has been halted for months by a hold placed by Sen. Kyl on behalf of the Justice Department. After multiple editorials, including several in Sen. Kyl’s homestate Arizona Republic, assailed Kyl’s position and nicknamed him “the Secrecy Senator,” Kyl’s staff negotiated new compromise language and allowed the bill to reach the floor today.

“This is a small step for open government, but a giant leap for the United States Senate,” said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. “We applaud Congress’ action to fulfill the intent of the Freedom of Information Act. This legislation will correct many of the deficiencies in FOIA that the Archive’s audits have revealed.”

The most recent audit by the Archive, the Knight Open Government Survey released in July 2007, found that the oldest still-pending FOIA requests had languished in federal agencies for as long as 20 years.

The previous Knight Open Government Survey, released in March 2007, found that only one out of five federal agencies had complied fully with the last FOIA reform legislation, the Electronic FOIA Amendments passed in 1996, intended to post so much government information on the Web that many FOIA requests would become unnecessary.

The Archive’s audits of federal government FOIA practice are supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Archive partners in the efforts to reform the FOIA include the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Public Citizen and Public Citizen Litigation Group, and dozens of other groups that signed on to support the House and Senate bills this year.

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