The American Society of Journalists and Authors joined more than 40 organizations committed to government openness and accountability in signing on to a letter to the leadership of the House of Representatives. The letter, which was coordinated by OpenTheGovernment.org, expresses support for a new bill with reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
On Monday, January 11, the House passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653). This bill amends FOIA and promotes greater government transparency and accountability. The bill includes reforms that will have clear impact on the disclosure of information. Focusing on the presumption of openness, it requires agencies to disclose information unless there is “foreseeable harm” in its release, or unless there is some legal requirement to withhold the information. This important bill also allows the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to communicate directly with Congress and to issue advisory opinions in mediation.
The bill also narrows the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, which has broadly expanded and been cited to justify withholding important public interest information. Under this exemption, memos with key information on Bush-era torture programs, targeted killing programs, and NSA surveillance programs have been withheld from the public.
The letter ASJA signed onto emphasizes the support among the information openness community for these provisions and others in H.R. 653.
However, the letter also states our objection to last-minute changes to the bill. These changes, added at the behest of members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, would exempt the Intelligence Community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments. Thus, currently-protected information relating to “sources and methods” would not be subject to disclosure under any of the amendments in the bill.
The last-minute changes also would exempt the Intelligence Community from reforms to the consultation process between OGIS and Congress. Since the Intelligence Community needs the reforms the most, exempting these agencies from the consultation process significantly weakens the reform measures in the bill.
Finally, the letter reads, “The undersigned organizations support the bicameral, bipartisan movement toward reforming the FOIA. Congress must continue to act to ensure before the end of this Administration that FOIA stays current with people’s need to access government information and resilient in the face of attempts to subvert that access.”
Founded in 1948, the American Society of Journalists and Authors is the nation’s professional organization of independent nonfiction writers. Our membership consists of more than 1,200 outstanding freelance writers of magazine articles, trade books, and many other forms of nonfiction writing, each of whom has met ASJA’s exacting standards of professional achievement. ASJA brings leadership in establishing professional and ethical standards, and in recognizing and encouraging the pursuit of excellence in nonfiction writing. ASJA headquarters are in New York City. The Society has active regional chapters in a variety of locations. Learn more at our blog http://www.asja.org/