Freedom of information is a public right

Our view: This is a government of and for the people – not political appointees

News that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s office allowed political appointees to review hundreds of public records requests is shameful. Political considerations have no place in the government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Of all people, Napolitano, a lawyer, former U.S. attorney, Arizona attorney general and governor, should know that.

An Associated Press investigation found that requests for information and documents that were flagged as being politically sensitive – not sensitive for national security reasons, but politically sensitive – were scrutinized by eight appointees for “awareness purposes.”

One was Jan Lesher, a Tucsonan who until earlier this year was Napolitano’s chief of staff for operations.

The AP said the political hires didn’t stop records from being released. Instead, their review at times slowed the release of documents for weeks. Delays were long enough that another top employee worried the government would be sued.

The political appointees showed “a probing curiosity” about the people and organizations that made requests for public records, the AP found.

The government says that fewer than 500 requests were subject to political review. They included all requests from lawmakers, journalists, and activist and watchdog groups between July 2009 and early this month. Lawmakers were identified by their political party.

Homeland Security says it’s a coincidence that it rescinded the policy requiring political approval at the same time it turned over 995 e-mails the AP sought as part of its investigation.

Some coincidence. The e-mails were released only after the Office of Government Information Services mediated the dispute over access.

Homeland Security’s new policy is that political advisers will receive copies of records three days before they are made public, but the release isn’t subject to their approval. We suggest their time would better be spent keeping the homeland secure.

There’s simply no need for political appointees to be involved at all. The department has employees whose job is to review records requests and determine whether they should be released or withheld for security reasons.

The Obama administration came into office pledging greater access to information and a new era of open government. One of the first things the president did was to declare the removal of roadblocks the Bush administration had put up in the public’s ability to monitor our government.

We’re left wondering whether that pledge is genuine. A Justice Department spokesman said that the department is unaware of other agencies with similar review policies. How about a review and guarantee from Justice, which oversees the Freedom of Information Act?

By law, a person or organization that requests information or documents does not have to provide background identification or explain why the information is being requested. This is the bedrock of the public access laws – the government is of the people and by the people.

Simply put, the public has the power to scrutinize the workings of its government.

Napolitano’s policy was dangerous in a way that is subtle, perhaps, but perilous nonetheless. If access to information about what our government is doing becomes dependent on one’s political affiliations or the potential to make an administration look bad, then the foundation of our system is in jeopardy.

Two things are certain in this case. The policy was indefensible. And it took the muscle of The Associated Press to break the truth free and to expose it.

If the release of information makes an administration or government office look bad, so be it. It’s our right as Americans to make that determination for ourselves.

Arizona Daily Star

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