Friday, August 06, 2004

Government Secrecy

Freedom of Information Act LogoAccording to GovExecs.com, requests for government information hit an all time high during fiscal 2003 , jumping nearly 36% to 3.2 million requests. However, the real story is buried deeper in the article:
"Access to information is becoming a kind of battleground in which questions of security, policy and government accountability are being hashed out," [Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists] said. "There are some victories, and some information does get disclosed, but there are also lots of defeats."

Aftergood said he worries that government agencies are moving toward placing more restrictions on information.

..."Anyone can understand that there might be reasons to withhold information to protect security," Aftergood said. "The problem is that agencies, including DHS, have gone overboard and are invoking security in implausible ways. And what that does is foster public cynicism and encourage skepticism, even about the legitimate applications of security."
On the victory side, last month the Department of Justice asked the Government Printing Office Superintendent of Documents to instruct libraries to destroy five publications the Department has deemed not "appropriate for external use."
poster entitled 'Book Burning! Join Your Neighbors'The topics addressed in the named documents include information on how citizens can retrieve items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation. The documents to be removed and destroyed include: Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure; Select Criminal Forfeiture Forms; Select Federal Asset Forfeiture Statutes; Asset forfeiture and money laundering resource directory; and Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA).
Read the DOJ's letter to the ALA here. (Scroll down)

In other words, John Ashcroft doesn't want you to know how to get your stuff back.

While the Department of Justice claimed the documents were "training materials and other materials that the DOJ staff did not feel were appropriate for external use," the Government Printing Office/Supervisor of Documents (GPO/SuDocs) debunked their excuse.

According to the American Library Association Washington Office Newsline, "We understand that DOJ has wanted -- for years -- to keep this material internal and has not succeeded in doing so. Now what they will be doing is making it difficult for the public -- those without access to a law office or law library -- to get access to these materials."

In other words, Ashcroft reeeeeally doesn't want you to know how to get your stuff back.

The American Library Association responded by submitting "a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the withdrawn materials in order to obtain an official response from the Department of Justice regarding this unusual action, and why the Department has requested that documents that have been available to the public for as long as four years be removed from depository library collections."

Has there ever been a time in history when librarians were sexier?

The August 2 ALA Washington Newsletter announced to ALA members that after their assertive response, the Department of Justice had withdrawn their request.
In making this request, the Department of Justice said, although these materials were "intended only for the internal training use of Department of Justice personnel and, as such, were inappropriately distributed to depository libraries through an administrative oversight," the Department has determined that these materials are "not sufficiently sensitive to require removal from the depository library system."
Score 1 victory for the people.

In the words of the ALA's press release gloating over applauding the decision, "ALA trusts that there will be no repetition of such unjustified instructions to destroy government information."

The ALA is more optimistic than I am. And I think Steven Aftergood might agree.






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