A recent report by ProPublica and the Columbia Journalism Review identified a host of ways in which the administration is making it harder for the public to access records heretofore more readily within reach. The Department of Energy wants to eliminate a rule that allowed it to release documents if it concluded that they would serve the public interest. The Department of Education has expanded its authority to refuse release of materials even after they are redacted to remove students' names and identifying information. Other agencies are raising fees for processing and copying. The Securities and Exchange Commission wants to charge $70 an hour for processing some requests -- not that anyone would want to study the efficacy of regulation and enforcement in the stock market.
From its first months, the Bush administration has encouraged bureaucrats to search for reasons to deny requests for information, directly reversing former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's order to government workers during the Clinton years to opt for release whenever permitted by the FOIA. So the latest actions are best seen not as an epiphany by this administration but rather as mop-up after a long, determined effort to shut the public out of government.
The FOIA is an ungainly device for illuminating the workings of government. It forces agencies to spend time and energy reviewing requests, some frivolous or excessive. Still, it gives the public its clearest window into the actions of taxpayer-funded agencies. Curbs on the FOIA thus represent not just inconveniences for journalists and historians but restrictions on the rights of citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable; as such, they compromise a fundamental right of a democratic people. It is fitting, if dismaying, that the Bush administration should be making one last attempt to shield government from those it is intended to serve.