War on Terror Restricts Information Flow

 
After hijacked planes slammed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal agencies to clamp down on releasing records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law requiring government agencies to make information available on request.

Government workers who deny FOIA requests "can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions," wrote Ashcroft in an October 2001 memorandum to federal agencies.

Many state officials have followed Ashcroft's lead, arguing that restricting public access to many kinds of information will help prevent future attacks by hampering terrorists' activities. But civil rights groups and journalists counter that many of the restrictions have little to do with preventing terrorism.

A dozen states - Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia - have adopted new rules to limit access to public records in the name of national security this year.

Not all reporters have noticed a change, but many say they face more restrictions and an attitudinal shift from state and federal officials.

"The change in attitude toward freedom of information definitely exists. People who are doing stories are less likely to get government records to help them than they were in the past," said Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Public officials are more leery of making information available as a result of the terrorist attacks," said Tim Franklin, editor of the Orlando Sentinel . "I don't think anybody is suggesting that we should help give terrorists a playbook on how to wreak havoc. But at the same time, the thing that makes this country special in the world is that the government officials are held accountable for their actions on a regular basis. If we forfeit that accountability, as a democracy we've lost something."

Even in the Sunshine State, known for an expansive open records law, Orlando Sentinel reporters' requests were turned down when they sought the terrorists' Florida driver's license information in the days following Sept. 11.

In Michigan, reporters have faced inquiries by state officials about document requests even though officials aren't allowed to ask the purpose under state law, said Mark Gribben, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.

The association fought hard this year against the enactment of a law to restrict information related to critical infrastructure. The new law exempts public building and water designs from disclosure in addition to domestic preparedness strategies and emergency response plans.

"I don't believe terrorists file FOIA requests," Gribben said.

Janon Fisher, projects editor for The Herald-News in Passaic County, N.J., said the continuing secrecy over the names of detainees held in Passaic County jails since Sept. 11 - despite requests under FOIA - symbolizes the changed climate for information gatherers.

Fisher said he's also faced obstacles in getting emergency evacuation plans and county officials' cell phone numbers.

But despite the restrictions, New Jersey is better off than most states thanks to a new state open records law - and a change of heart by Gov. Jim McGreevey - who first opposed the measure that presumes all government records are public unless they are specifically exempted.

"Before the new law, it was impossible. There was no information coming out. But they didn't have to cite any rationale for withholding information such as safety and national security," Fisher said.

As soon as the law took effect, McGreevey issued an executive order exempting many records, citing fear of terrorism and sabotage. But McGreevey rescinded most exemptions this month after the state press association complained.

Not all states have made it tougher to gain access to records.

"I have not seen much change -- good or bad -- since Sept. 11," said Dennis Schick, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association.

Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and political writer for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, said, "I have detected no difference in Kentucky."

Likewise, Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and reporter for the Spokesman-Review , said she has seen no changes in compliance with records requests despite a new Idaho law that exempts public building records from disclosure.

 
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