WASHINGTON (AP) — At a time of continued government secrecy, American news media should press the presidential candidates about whether their administration would enforce “the spirit as well as the letter of the law” protecting the public’s right to know, Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley said Tuesday.
“Secrecy is one of the handiest tools for government that wants to be accountable only to itself regardless of the spirit of any law,” he said in a National SunshineWeek speech. Sunshine in this context refers to openness in government.
Curley praised congressional passage of legislation that toughened the Freedom of Information Act, a four-decades-old law that gave journalists and others access to many laws or other government documents that previously had been held in secret.
Curley chided Bush administration efforts that he said undercut the law. The presidential election provides a good opportunity to press for open government policies, he said.
“We need to ask the candidates — at every opportunity until we have a clear answer — whether they are willing to appoint an attorney general willing to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law that protects the people’s right to know what their government is doing,” Curley said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday night at the National Press Club.
President George W. Bush signed into law last December an updated Freedom of Information Act, the first such makeover to public access laws in a decade. It establishes a hot line service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.
The legislation came partly in response to an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security. Although the legislation is aimed at reversing Ashcroft’s order, it fails to do so explicitly.
Early this year, the administration submitted a budget proposal that would move the ombudsman’s office to the U.S. Justice Department instead of the National Archives as established by the law. Open government advocates, including Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, say that would be a conflict of interest because the Justice Department would be defending federal agencies that sought to keep records secret.
In his speech, Curley criticized the administration move as a “sucker punch” to cripple the new FOIA law. He urged advocates to push back and called for the next attorney general explicitly to reverse the Ashcroft memo.
“We must do more because the entrenched powers have become far more determined to avoid public scrutiny when it matters most,” he said.
Addressing the issue of whether journalists should be open government advocates, Curley said it would be a disservice to the public to pretend to be “disinterested observers.” He noted that journalists already routinely badgered executive agencies and courts “for information and access we think the Constitution says the public is supposed to have. By reporting on their efforts, we have revealed for millions important lessons in fighting city halls, state houses and, yes, even Washington.”
In his remarks, Curley:
Cited the case of former USA Today reporter Toni Locy as a “dramatic example” of why Congress should pass a federal shield law. Locy, who also formerly worked for The Associated Press, recently was fined up to $5,000 a day by a federal judge unless she disclosed anonymous Justice Department sources to lawyers for a former Army scientist who came under scrutiny in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Urged release of any evidence the U.S. military has to justify its detention of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, who worked in the Iraq war zone. After spending 19 months in prison, Hussein’s case was referred to the Iraqi criminal courts. Pentagon spokesmen have alleged that he was suspected in a range of terrorist-related activities.