Foiled FOIA

By Wicklein, John | American Journalism Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Foiled FOIA


Wicklein, John, American Journalism Review


'Clinton was a vert accessible governor," says Noel Oman, former chief statehouse correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The press room was well-positioned the state capitol between the governor's office and the parking lot, he recalls, "so we could always catch him, coming in and going out, and we were always able to talk with him."

But that didn't mean it was easy for Arkansas reporters to get usable information out of Bill Clinton. Oman and Bob Lutgen, the paper's managing editor, both said it: Clinton was great at schmoozing. He talked a good game about supporting the state's freedom of information laws, but when it came to enforcing them, he wasn't there.

"When Clinton was running in 1990," says Lutgen, "I asked him if he'd conduct a mini-seminar for agency heads so they'd get A directly from the boss, the governor, that the presumption was for openness and release of records. He said, 'Love the idea,' but he never did it."

That pattern has carried over into Clinton's presidency--fine words on openness, but not much personal follow-through.

Washington reporters and freedom of information activists give the president high marks for directives he's issued favoring disclosure of information. But they see no big change in the flow of information today, compared with the Reagan and Bush administrations which had more restrictive Freedom of Information Act policies.

"There's been no open spigot," says Jonathan Wolman, AP's Washington bureau chief. Bill Headline, CNN's former Washington bureau chief, is more blunt: "They hate us and make it as difficult as possible for us to get information," he says.

Constitutional attorney Floyd Abrams comments wryly: "No one gives freedom of information awards to the Clinton administration." Yet if he really wanted to, Clinton could win one. Since he's been in office, he has issued a couple of orders that, if he insisted they be carried out, would make him the most open president in recent history.

On October 4, 1993, Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno put out a Freedom of Information Act directive that overturned the Reagan-Bush policy of withholding records whenever the government could get away with it. Instead, Clinton required agencies to apply a presumption of disclosure, withholding information only when there was "foreseeable harm" under a FOIA exemption, such as classified information. And in this directive, Clinton was the first president to state that the public had a right to information stored not only on paper, but also in computers.

The second action--affecting the classification of documents--came harder, a lot harder. Last April, Clinton issued an executive order canceling President Reagan's 1983 directive telling government officials that, when in doubt, they should classify as secret anything that could remotely affect national security. Instead, Clinton ordered classifiers to resolve doubts in favor of disclosure. He made declassification of all government documents mandatory after 25 years, without page-by-page review. He allowed eight exemptions, one excluding information that could "clearly and demonstrably" damage national security. But even these can be appealed.

The order was a long time corning. In April of 1993 Clinton had promised to overhaul government policies on secrets, in part to make good on his campaign pledge to run an open administration. But he spent two years arguing about it with military and intelligence officials who demanded a more secretive policy. Among a number of restrictions, they wanted to keep secrets for 40 years before mandatory release. In the end, Clinton compromised, but held out for the 25-year limit, finally issuing his Executive Order 12958 on April 17.

The directives should be a great boon to reporters trying to spring loose information through FOIA requests. However, as any reporter knows, the test of openness is in timely access to documents. …

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