Has the US government gone too far in making its mountainous records available to the public? Has the release of such information added a costly layer of bureaucracy, hindered law enforcement, and made vital intelligence gathering more difficult?
The Reagan administration says "yes," and apparently intends to slow down -- if not reverse -- the recent trend toward more openness in government.
This may not be surprising, given President Reagan's strong concern for law enforcement, national security, and bureaucratic efficiency.But in seeking to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, he is continuing a movement begun during the Carter administration and one with growing support on Capitol Hill.
The Freedom of Information Act usually is associated with journalists who have used it to ferret out such things as CIA mind-control experiments or to spotlight government regulators who had worked for the industries they were supposed to oversee. But, in fact, the majority of requests under the act come from corporations looking for information about competitors or government investigations. There also have been instances of convicted criminals using the act to thwart law enforcement officers and identify informants, officials report , not to mention many frivolous and "crank" inquiries.
Public-interest organizations, civil liberties advocates, and press groups warn of more government secrecy with less access to official files. Some argue that the public should have greater freedom to peruse agency paper work.
But there are others who agree with Attorney General William French Smith that "years of experience have made it clear that many persons are employing [ the law] in ways Congress did not intend."
Many police officials have complained to congressional investigators that sources of information "dry up" for fear that they will be revealed in freedom of information suits.
The General Accounting Office has reported that 40 percent of freedom of information requests to the Drug Enforcement Administration come from prisoners seeking not only their own files but laboratory materials describing the manufacture of drugs.
Following the recent assassination attempt against President Reagan, Secret Service Director H. Stuart Knight testified that the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts have "severely reduced" the amount of intelligence data needed to protect public officials.
FBI Director William Webster has proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that would deny bureau records to aliens and felons, set a seven-year moratorium on releasing investigative information, and exempt the act from matters of foreign intelligence, organized crime, and terrorism.
Attorney General Smith this week simply revoked a Carter administration guideline requiring public disclosure of agency records unless such disclosure would be "demonstrably harmful" to the government.
While the Carter administration loosened up the Freedom of Information Act a bit in this way, it also had proposed that the CIA be allowed to withhold more information from public scrutiny. The Justice Department, during Carterhs term, had been considering other amendments to the act as well.
Administration amendments are expected later this year, but are likely to be similar to those already proposed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah. The Hatch bill would restrict freedom of information requests to one per person per year, leave it up to individual agencies whether to provide information to "foreign nationals or to foreign corporate entities," and allow law enforcement agencies to withhold information for 10 years.
The bill also would exempt law enforcement manuals and handbooks, confidential information received from foreign or local governments, and police or intelligence personnel rosters from the law.
The latter, some congressional critics worry, could lead to "secret police" agencies being established.