BOB GARFIELD: Since 1967 the Freedom of Information Act has enabled the public, especially journalists, to obtain routine and not so routine information from a federal bureaucracy not necessarily predisposed to sharing it. But Attorney General John Ashcroft's post-9/11 marching orders narrow the information channel, allowing the government to be less forthcoming with information on national security, law enforcement, business negotiations, executive deliberations and other exceptions. The new orders have raised the ire and the suspicions of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. Leahy, who has asked the General Accounting Office to assess the impact of the restrictions, says the burden of justifying non-disclosure should be on the administration.
PATRICK LEAHY: National security things can be protected and, and should be protected, but that doesn't mean that you close the doors on everything government's done forever. It is very easy for the government to say we'll tell you if there is information here that you should know. I want to know when they make a mistake.
BOB GARFIELD:Why are you getting the General Accounting Office involved? Can't you simply demand that the cabinet departments provide evidence of compliance?
PATRICK LEAHY: The thing about having GAO go and look at it -you have an independent agency that will tell us whether they really are or not doing it. In the Justice Department, they won't even give a Republican house committee chairman records talking about a 30 year old criminal case where you had two men that were jailed for a murder they did not commit.
BOB GARFIELD:All right now let's just say that 6 months hence the General Accounting Office comes back with a report and it says yes, well your suspicions were correct; the compliance under this administration has been woeful. Can't the Bush administration still effectively choke off information in approximately the way that the Reagan administration, for example, deregulated simply by lax enforcement?
PATRICK LEAHY: They can, but I think that they base a price if they don't want to comply with the law. I think you're going to find a lot of members of Congress in both parties support the Freedom of Information Act; they know that this is the one way the public knows when the administration which may be Republican one time, may be Democratic the next -- this is the way you know what they are doing. And I think that the pressure will be--insurmountable.
BOB GARFIELD: Now you've been a FOIA hawk for your entire career. Do you think that the current administration is the least compliant or--?
PATRICK LEAHY:Well I think there is some concern - some others in the past, but once FOIA was put in, most administrations have been willing to comply with it. This one has taken an entirely different attitude. GAO is having to sue Vice President Cheney to get information that everybody else would acknowledge should be readily available. Attorney General Ashcroft has put restrictions that no other attorney general has put on FOIA requests. The closing of presidential papers - they're normally available to scholars. Three federal judges have al--already had to order the Bush administration to stop their delaying tactics.
BOB GARFIELD:Well considering that we're at war and considering the ongoing threat of terrorism have we reached a stage in the society when we have to give the government a little more leeway?
PATRICK LEAHY: In World War II we faced the possible annihilation not only of our country but of all of our Western allies, and I remember Senator Harry Truman still had a commission going to find out where mistakes were made in the war effort. I don't think anybody questioned Harry Truman's devotion to this nation. We do the best job when it's open and people can ask questions; we do the worst jobs when it's closed and people are not allowed to ask questions.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you one more thing - you've written to the General Accounting Office to get an audit of the Justice Dependent's performance. Have you had the Justice Department before the Judiciary Committee to hold their feet to the fire?
PATRICK LEAHY: I'd prefer to have the information first from GAO so that I won't get stuck with vanilla answers. I used to be a prosecutor, and I, I learned that when I went in to ask questions I want to make sure I know what the answer's going to be.
BOB GARFIELD: You want to make sure the glove fits before you ask the-- defendant to put it on. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PATRICK LEAHY: I want to make sure - I want to make sure I know what I'm doing.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well thank you very much.
PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's recently sent a little note to the General Accounting Office. [MUSIC]