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Freedom of information is a bulwark liberty

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The Associated Press found that bureaucrats were refusing to release files, or were turning in heavily redacted ones, in 78 percent of Freedom of Information requests, a marked increase over the past decade.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Not only does the public have a right to know what government officials are up to, in order to exercise our duty as citizens, we have a vital need to know.

It’s not part of the Constitution, but the Freedom of Information Act is one of the bulwarks of our liberties.

Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on the Fourth of July 1966, the act provides that, with a few exceptions, citizens have a right to see documents and data maintained by the federal government, whether or not it’s been released.

The public has the right to see the public’s business. Foul things tend to grow and thrive in the dark; the FOIA, as fans call it, shines a little light.

Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions that protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

This isn’t just a tool for nosy reporters. Veterans groups have used the FOIA to get more details about water contamination at Camp Lejeune, which likely caused a host of illnesses among Marines and their families.

The American Civil Liberties Union used a FOIA request to document how the FBI was performing surveillance on peaceful environmental groups who posed no danger of violence. Thousands of individuals have petitioned to see the contents of FBI files on them, or to determine if any such files exist. Anyone can do the same at www.foia.gov.

In short, the FBI helps keep Uncle Sam honest. Which is why an Associated Press report this past week was so disturbing.

The AP found that bureaucrats were refusing to release files, or were turning in heavily redacted ones, in 78 percent of cases, a marked increase over the past decade.

In many cases, the government reported files could not be found. The AP also noted that the government spent $40.6 million (of taxpayers’ money, remember) to defend its decisions before federal courts to keep files closed.

Some of this has nothing to do with malign intent. The federal government, as a whole, is decades behind private corporations when it comes to data storage and retrieval. In a digital age, FOIA searches often mean pawing through reams of paper in filing cabinets. Searches really can take months, or even years, to complete.

This is intolerable. Surely Congress can find the money somewhere to update the bureaucracy’s records retrieval systems.

We may fear a Massive Federal Behemoth, but we need enough clerks and supervisors to ensure that citizens’ reasonable requests are handled in a timely fashion. (To its credit, the Trump administration claims it has reduced the backload in pending FOIA requests. If that’s true, good for them.)

How peculiar that some politicians who like to mutter about “The Deep State” and regularly express contempt for government in general don’t seem to want the records of its doings put on public view.

The United States is a republic, meaning supreme power rests in the people via their elected representatives. Not only does the public have a right to know what our various government officials are up to, in order to exercise our duty as citizens, we have a vital need to know.

It’s election season — a good time for asking candidates how they feel about the FOIA process (if they know what it is) and ask how they’re going to improve it.

The Star-News of Wilmington

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