A Senate committee chairman accused the Bush administration on Monday of undercutting open government with a budget proposal that would have the Justice Department oversee a new office devoted to promoting greater freedom of information.
Open government advocates joined Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in protesting the budget request, which would repeal language President Bush signed into law a month ago putting the office in the National Archives. The concerns are that the Justice Department has a conflict of interest.
In any dispute over releasing government records, Justice would be defending federal agencies seeking to keep the records secret.
The OPEN Government Act that Bush signed established the Office of Government Information Services with an ombudsman to review agency policies and procedures, audit agency performance, recommend policy changes and mediate disputes.
Leahy said that "once again, the White House has shown they intend to act contrary to the intent of Congress."
In a statement, the White House said that most of the proposed functions for the office are already performed by the Justice Department and that the National Archives has limited experience dealing with intricate legal issues relating to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Requiring the Archives to fill this role would detract from its core mission of storing and preserving federal records, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the private National Security Archive, said the National Archives are more likely to be unbiased and to give independent opinions on FOIA disputes. The action by the Bush administration, Fuchs said, suggests the "National Archives are not given much respect by the White House." Fuchs' group focuses on open government issues.
Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of 10 media organizations, said that for the first time, Congress created an independent ombudsman in the federal government to help the public.
"Why quit the experiment after only 35 days?" Blum said.
"The ombudsman will be an important advocate for the public to better understand how open government works, resolve disputes and avoid unnecessary lawsuits when seeking documents from our government," Blum added.
The coalition consists of The Associated Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
© 2008 Associated Press