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“Official Secrets Act” Dead for 2002; House Committee Moves to Restore Presidential Records Act


Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert

Attorney General John Ashcroft has issued a long-awaited report regarding leaks of classified information ("unauthorized disclosures.") The report comes from a task force Ashcroft was directed to form by the 2002 intelligence authorization bill.

The report concludes that the country does not need an “official secrets act” similar to the proposal sponsored by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and vetoed at the eleventh hour by President Clinton in the late fall of 2000.

This is very good news. It puts the Bush administration on record supporting the view that existing law is enough to deal with leaks that allegedly damage national security. Put simply, it cuts the legs out from under Shelby and others who might have considered putting a new version of the “official secrets” bill before Congress.

The report concludes:
“Although there may be some benefit from a new comprehensive criminal statute, such a statute standing alone would be insufficient in my view to meet the problem of unauthorized disclosures of classified information in its entirety.
Accordingly, I am not recommending that the Executive Branch focus its attention on pursuing new legislation at this time.”
At present (October 22) Ashcroft's letter informing Congress of the report’s conclusions is not available on the Department of Justice website (www.usdoj.gov.)
(Special thanks to Scott Armstrong)

Meanwhile, the full House Committee on Government Reform has given its unanimous final approval to a bill to nullify President Bush’s 2001 executive order on presidential records.

H.R. 4187, “The Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2002,” may not get full House consideration before the end of the year, but could be re-introduced in 2003.

Its chief sponsor is Rep. Stephen Horn (R-California.) The bill also has the backing of Government Reform Committee Chair Dan Burton (R-California) and 43 other House members, most of them Democrats.

Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidents leaving office may order that certain sensitive records be kept secret for 12 years, after which they would come under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.

President Bush’s executive order allows sitting or former presidents to block the release of those records, even after they are scheduled by law to fall under FOIA.

Bush’s order came as tens of thousands of Reagan-era papers were becoming available for release under FOIA. The order was loudly criticized by SPJ and other organizations, including groups representing historians and government accountability advocates.

Rep. Horn’s bill would nullify the executive order and set up a statutory process and strict time frame for reviewing old presidential papers and claiming executive privilege.

Following committee passage of the bill, Horn issued the following statement:

“I take no pleasure in being at odds with the President. However, Executive Order 13233, which President Bush issued last year, threatens to undermine the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Unfortunately, H.R. 4187 is needed to get the Records Act back on course. ...the Executive Order violates both the letter and spirit of the Presidential Records Act by allowing the Presidents to prevent the records from being released, whether they claim executive privilege or not. It also requires that the Archivist automatically accept any claims of executive privilege, even if the claims are unfounded.”

To view all actions on the bill and its full text, visit the Congressional legislative summary site at: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:h.r.04187:
(Special thanks to Patrice McDermott at the American Library Association)

SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 8; No. 1

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The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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