By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
THE CLINTON administration has proposed minor changes in how the executive branch handles Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act issues.
The changes, outlined in the Federal Register, include clarification of FoIA policy for handling documents that originate in another agency. They also specify that individuals’ personal computer files will not be included under the definition of agency records in the Privacy Act.
The proposal is not all that radical ? it was made mostly because of a restructuring in the office of administration ? but it provides a rare opportunity to comment on White House FoIA policy.
“The White House in its entirety is not subject to FoIA,” explained Washington lawyer Alan Adler of Cohn & Marks.
The president and his immediate staff and advisers are not subject to FoIA as an “agency,” Adler said, but there has been litigation seeking to determine whether such advisers act in other capacities as well, which might bring them under FoIA requirements.
Rebecca Daugherty, director of FoIA services at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, said the committee will be filing comments on the proposals.
“It’s very important to respond,” she said, explaining that one constant problem is that “regular, routine things that have nothing to do with executive decision-making are withheld.”
A recent example was the press’ attempt to gain access to the salaries of White House staffers.
The information eventually was leaked to the Washington Post, which printed the salaries of top staff people, creating quite a stir.
Daugherty said that kind of information is “very much the public’s business,” especially because it involves tax dollars.
“What’s spent on airfare or salaries of people who serve the president is not a decision-making function,” she added, referring to the frequent use of government airplanes for private trips by former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
Knight-Ridder Newspapers reporter Angie Cannon requested the salary information before the Post article was published but was told, as was the Post, that the figures were confidential.
Knight-Ridder Washington bureau chief Richard Oppel was so incensed by the refusal that he fired off a letter to President Clinton, reminding the president of his earlier memorandum extolling FoIA and encouraging more openness in government.
On behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Oppel wrote, “There may be no specific law commanding the release of the salaries, but there is certainly no law authorizing the withholding of the information. In the absence of such authorization, the information should be public without discussion. The people’s business, we submit, is the people’s business.”
Oppel said that while the salary information has been made public, “What we’d like to do is have the president and the White House acknowledge the importance of sharing information.
“Both the president and the attorney general have enunciated a policy of openness, so we are taking them at their word,” he said. “We’re calling to their attention an incident that seems at odds with that, and we invite their comment.”