Debate on Freedom of Information Act revs up

Defenders and critics are drawing battle lines on Capitol Hill this week over a major reform that came out of the Watergate scandal. At issue is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which in 1974 was amended to become a powerful tool for allowing citizens to see government records. Since then thousands of people have been able to review their own files at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while reporters and reseachers have used the law to obtain government studies from reluctant agencies.

Following the lead of Washington, states and localities have passed similar "sunshine" laws, aimed at ending secrecy in government. The influence goes even further, according to Robert L. Saloschin, who administered the law for the US Department of Justice from 1969 until last March. He told a Senate subcommittee this week that the act is being watched by "Canada, Australia, Japan, and several European nations."

The Reagan administration has served notice that it wants to push the pendulum back on the Freedom of Information Act and plans to unveil its proposals for reform next September.

Meanwhile, at hearings in both houses of Congress this week, supporters argued for protecting the act as a guarantee of open government. And detractors accused the law of thwarting criminal investigations, national security, and American business interests, as well as costing too much money.

Jonathan C. Rose, assistant attorney general for legal policy, told a Senate subcommittee that there are "significant problems" with the act.

The act provides for censoring information that would damage an investigation or reveal informants. But Rose said that criminals may be able to piece together data they do receive in ways unknown to the agency.

Even without clear proof of harm, Rose and others have charged that mere "perceptions" make the law harmful. Would-be FBI or foreign informants perceive the FOIA act an endangering their security, according to Rose.

Rose added that American businesses, fearing their competitors will have access to government files, are less willing to give confidential information. Further, Rose said that the act is too expensive, costing some $57 million to administer.

News media representatives and public interest groups are telling the government to keep the law intact. It is "probably the single most valuable tool to make government accountable," Jack C. Landau, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told a House panel this week.

"It's a myth that newspapers don't use the act very much," said William Cox, city editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal to the House subcommittee. "For every one or two formal requests there are 12 or 15 or 20 that we don't have to make" because agencies comply informally.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader listed for a Senate subcommittee a series of exposures brought about with the help of the FOIA.

Mr. Nader called it "hypocritical" for the Reagan administration, committed to reducing "waste, fraud, and mismanagement," to be seeking to limit "citizens' ability to find out how their gover nment is behaving."

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