Sorry, AP, the Dog Ate Your FOIA Request

By: (AP) The government argues that a health official?s required public financial disclosure reports should not become public. Some of President Bush?s military records were not released because officials did not want to search boxes filled with rat excrement. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge?s public schedules were withheld until he left office.

Those roadblocks to obtaining government data arose in response to requests during the past year by The Associated Press. In recent years, the AP and other regular users of the Freedom of Information Act have been presented with a growing list of never-before-seen excuses for denying the public release of government documents.

?It?s become much, much harder to get responses to FOIA requests, and it?s taking much, much longer,? said David A. Schulz, the attorney who helps the AP with FOIA requests. ?Agencies seem to view their role as coming up with techniques to keep information secret rather than the other way around. That?s completely contrary to the goal of the act.?

It has taken administrative appeals or lawsuits to overcome some obstacles, but not before requesters had to wait -- sometimes until the information sought was no longer useful -- and often had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for lawyers.

Other times, ordinary citizens were thwarted because they lacked time or money.

Bush administration officials acknowledge reining in the policies of earlier administrations to protect privacy and national security, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

?We were more attuned to privacy concerns, as well as the security matters, than prior to this administration coming in,? said Mark Corallo, who just retired as the Justice Department?s spokesman.

Corallo said the department relied on recommendations of career experts to handle information release requests. He said that elsewhere ?perhaps the bureaucracy took advantage of the national security imperative at times to withhold non-national security stuff.?

Whatever the case, some new roadblocks are novel.

During last year?s presidential campaign, the AP filed federal and state suits that uncovered new, long-sought military records of Bush?s service.

Weeks after Texas National Guard officials swore under oath they had released everything, two retired Army lawyers searched again under an agreement between the AP and the Guard and found 31 unreleased pages. These included orders for high-altitude training in 1972, less than three months before Bush abruptly quit flying.

Defending the failure to find the documents, Guard spokesman Lt. Col. John Stanford said searching the old, disorganized boxes was tough. ?These boxes are full of dirt and rat [excrement] and dead bugs.?

The AP?s general counsel, David Tomlin, said the company spent almost $100,000 litigating the case. The government was ordered to pay the AP?s legal costs, but disputed the amount. The AP settled for a fraction of what it spent, Tomlin said.

AP lawyers are still appealing for copies of the 2001-2003 financial disclosure reports, required under the Ethics in Government Act, from Dr. Edmund Tramont, director of the National Institutes of Health?s AIDS division.

Such reports are released every year for all the government?s top executives so the public can look for conflicts of interest. The NIH released Tramont?s 2004 report but claimed release of the three prior years would be an ?unwarranted invasion of his privacy.?

?This is outrageous,? Schulz said. ?They are convincing themselves there might be privacy grounds for withholding documents that are specifically required to be created for public dissemination.?

Two public interest groups, People for the American Way and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, requested National Park Service records on revisions ordered for the video played in the museum at the Lincoln Memorial.

The conservative wrote in 2003 that the video implies Lincoln would have endorsed homosexual and abortion rights because the video contains images of rallies for those causes. Complaints flowed into the Park Service, which announced plans to revise the video.

?We wanted to see what these letter-writers were saying and what response they got,? said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way.

The government released some budget pages and newspaper clippings but withheld all other documents as interagency or intra-agency memos or letters. Stunned that citizen letters might be called interagency memos, the two groups sued.

Two years later, the government has agreed to review its exemptions for 1,000 pages. ?They issue blanket denials and don?t seriously look at their records until someone files a lawsuit,? Mincberg said.


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