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Journalists Criticize FOIA Bill Change

Critics said the Bush administration is weakening a freedom-of-information bill the president signed only weeks ago.

Journalists and open-government groups wrote the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee opposing what appeared to be a change by the Bush administration to the just-passed OPEN Government Act.

The act, which was signed into law in December, puts more teeth in enforcement of Freedom of Information Act requests, which journalists and average citizens can use to get information from the government. The act clarifies deadlines for responding to requests -- some requests had been languishing for years -- imposes penalties for missing deadlines, clarifies that requests also apply to outside contractors holding government documents and establishes a system for tracking requests and an ombudsman to make sure the government is following through on the reforms.

According to the letter, the Bush administration's new budget, released this week, proposes to move funding for that ombudsman from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Department of Justice.

Since the DOJ is also charged with defending government agencies in litigation brought by journalists and others filing FOIA requests, the Society of Professional Journalists and some 40 open-government groups argued that there is a built-in conflict of interest in the DOJ holding the purse strings for the new Office of Government Information Services.

They pointed out that the DOJ has been the lead agency in the FOIA implementation and practices that the OPEN Government Act was meant to reform. That includes requests languishing for years.

"We strongly oppose this effort to use the budget process to rewrite the law, undermining congressional intent and flouting a specific statutory mandate," they wrote.