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SPJ Asks Ashcroft Not to Stonewall Requests for Public Information


News editors, Political editors, Photo editors, Assignment desks

Al Cross
, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@spj.org
Charles N. Davis, Co-Chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, 573/882-5736 or charles_davis@jour.missouri.edu

INDIANAPOLIS – The federal government should not broadly hide public records behind the pretense of national security, the Society of Professional Journalists told Attorney General John Ashcroft today.

SPJ leaders sent Ashcroft a letter expressing alarm over a memorandum he issued this week. He urged government agencies not to disclose information protected under the Freedom of Information Act until they had carefully considered the threats to national security and the effectiveness of law enforcement.

The Freedom of Information Act allows U.S. citizens to obtain unclassified government records that otherwise would not be released. Journalists often use the law to reveal government wrongdoing and abuses.

“The fact we are involved in a national cause does not lessen the need for the news media to be watchdogs of the government,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political reporter and columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “As we defend our country, let us also defend the freedom of information that helps make this country an example for the world.”

In the letter, SPJ said that it supports keeping government records secret when the threat is credible and the link to the information is clear. However, in Ashcroft’s statement, SPJ said the attorney general alluded to purposeful stonewalling and delay in obtaining public information.

“The federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted during the height of the Cold War, when national security was at least as much of a concern as it is now,” said Charles N. Davis, co-chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. “The Act contains exemptions that adequately protect such interests, and the press and public should hold the government accountable for rash decisions aimed at expanding secrecy.”

SPJ has remained at the forefront of leadership in defending First Amendment principles and helping journalists in this time of national distress. Today’s letter to Ashcroft comes just two days after a group of 11 journalism organizations and free-speech advocates – led by SPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press – issued a “statement of principles” to the White House and Congress calling for the federal government to help maintain a free press in the war on terrorism.

The complete copy of the Society's letter to Ashcroft is as follows:

October 18, 2001

The Honorable John Ashcroft
United States Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Mr. Ashcroft:

As members of the Society of Professional Journalists, we write to express our deep concern for your October 15, 2001, memorandum regarding the federal Freedom of Information Act. The memorandum threatens to fundamentally alter the presumption of openness inherent to the FOIA, and sends the wrong message about open government to the federal bureaucracy. More ominously, it signals willingness by your office to use the pretense of national security to support a retreat from principles of openness clearly stated by previous administrations.

The news media often play a crucial role in exposing governmental misdeeds, malfeasance, neglect and abuse. Never has that role been more important, and rarely have journalists been threatened more directly for simply doing their jobs. To accomplish their constitutionally described role, the press must be able to base its work on government information. The evidence of the role of the press as watchdog is far too great to list here. In the past few months alone, journalists have used FOIA to inform the public of government bungling of the Wen Ho Lee case and to describe the lax airport security regime of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Journalists using governmental information obtained under the FOIA have also told the American people about the perils of foreign policy in other parts of the world. Much of the information the public has about our involvement in the Middle East, in fact, stems from journalism. The FOIA is central to those efforts, not because it helps journalists do their jobs, but because it helps the people monitor their government.

For these reasons, the Society of Professional Journalists is deeply troubled by the assertion that federal agencies need to revisit FOIA policy in any way other than to provide greater access to information. The memorandum tells federal agencies: "When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records."

Your memorandum is a step back from the tradition of presumptive disclosure reflected by the FOIA positions of the Bell, Smith and Reno Justice Departments. In the memorandum, you state that the document "calls attention to the administration of the FOIA at the highest levels of all agencies." Indeed it does, but in a most negative way. It urges federal employees to "carefully consider the protection of all such [national security] values and interests when making disclosure determinations under the FOIA." This can only be interpreted by those who use public records on a daily basis as a clarion call for stonewalling and delay.

A free and autonomous press is as central to the preservation of democracy as is a strong military. President Bush and other national leaders have signaled that terrorist threats differ from traditional justifications for governmental secrecy in that they create national security interests on the domestic front. We do not deny that secrecy is justified where the threat is credible and the link to the information is clear. The October 15 memorandum says no such thing. Instead, it sends a chilling message throughout the entire federal bureaucracy.

The government should protect information as necessary – but only for as long as necessary – to protect national security. Secrecy dilutes the ability of agencies and others to determine what truly needs protection. It inhibits government officials from communicating effectively, especially if they receive signals from on high that secrecy is acceptable.

There is little doubt that the message has been heard by the federal work force. The abrupt removal of information from Internet websites maintained by federal agencies, for example, which has picked up pace in recent weeks, defeats public confidence in the openness of its government. Few of the instances of removal can be justified by any of the FOIA's nine exemptions. The public is told that the information will be "evaluated" and then replaced. When? Under what legal standard?

The public's right to know has never been more important. For a democracy to function, the people must have access to information about what their elected and appointed officials are doing. The Society of Professional Journalists urges you to reconsider the memorandum and rethink the Administration's FOIA policy in light of the unprecedented need for information of and concerning governmental operations. The Society will carefully monitor FOIA compliance, and we look forward to initiating correspondence with Justice Department officials willing to discuss the matter further.


Al Cross
President, Society of Professional Journalists

Political Reporter and Columnist, The Courier-Journal
Louisville, KY

Charles N. Davis, Ph.D.
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-Chair

Executive Director
Freedom of Information Center
Missouri School of Journalism
Columbia, MO

Robert Leger
SPJ President-Elect

Editorial Page Editor
The Springfield News-Leader
Springfield, MO


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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