Today’s New York Times Editorial entitled “The Cult of Secrecy at the White House” includes reference both to ombudsmen and to mediation.
I am neither an every-day reader of the NYT editorial page, nor is my long-term memory as reliable as I’d prefer. But I cannot recall either of these staples of modern dispute resolution appearing on these pages. I wish the New York Times were talking about ombuds and mediators for happier reasons.
The full text of the editorial appears below.
New York Times Editorial
“The Cult of Secrecy at the White House”
There’s no end to President Bush’s slyness in subverting new Congressional law and clinging to the secrecy that has been the administration’s executive cloak. When a vital measure to strengthen the tattered freedom-of-information law won unanimous approval by both houses of Congress, the president was forced to soften his stand and quietly sign it into law on New Year’s Eve.
But, of course, even as open-government groups celebrated, the White House had another trick up its sleeve.
A bit of fine print inserted in the president’s new budget proposal would gut a major provision of the law — the empowerment of a new ombudsman to mediate disclosure disputes and prod agencies to end disgraceful runarounds in which legitimate citizen requests have been deep-sixed without a trace for a decade and more.
Rather than fulfilling Congress’s bipartisan mandate to establish the ombudsman at the respected National Archives, the Bush budget attempts a shell-game switch of the new watchdog to the Department of Justice. Mediator?
This is the very administration-friendly agency already responsible for defending agencies against lawsuits by citizens denied their information requests.
It’s not hard to see what the administration has in mind, for it was former Attorney General John Ashcroft who exploited 9/11 panic and notoriously urged federal agencies to use all legal means to kill public document requests. This has remained de facto policy, all the administration lip service to sunlit government notwithstanding.
The information law passed four decades ago set a 20-day deadline for agencies to reply to requests — a standard that soon became the bureaucracy’s cobwebbed joke on the public. The new law sets penalties for foot-dragging and requires a numerical tracking system so citizens can find out what’s happening to their requests. For the “litigation gamesmanship” documented by the National Security Archive, a private watchdog group, the law provides that requesters driven to sue in court could, if successful, have their attorney fees paid.
The ombudsman’s independence is at the heart of repairing the information law. Congress must strike down the president’s end-run and keep the new watchdog at the National Archives, alert to the public’s understandable suspicions about its government.