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The sneak attack on freedom of information

Are unsafe toys being allowed on the market? Who knows?Is the CIA spying on Americans again? Who knows? How is the IRS determining whose taxes to audit? Who knows? Is your new car safe at any speed? Who knows?

The government knows. But it doesn't want to say. And, increasingly, it doesn't have to.

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The reason: Some congressmen and senators are quietly gutting the Freedom of Information Act, acting without hearings or notice to cripple the already lame piece of legislation. The act, passed 15 years ago with the premise that records of most government decisionmaking should be made available to the public , soon could be the most misnamed act in Washington -- offering little freedom and les information.

Here are the latest developments:

* Last fall, a House-Senate conference committee amended the Federal Trade Commission Act to exempt from the Freedom of Information Act large areas of FTC documents relating to such fields of consumer interest as pricing policies, product safety, truth in advertising, and the like. This was passed without any hearings.

* In June of this year, another conference committee exempted large areas of documents held by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This exemption, again implemented without notice or hearings, affects such matters of public interest as product-safety data and warranty information.

* In July, again without hearings or notice, Congress amended the Omnibus Tax Bill to exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information ACt the auditing standards and rules adopted by the Internal Revenue Service.

* In July, too, again without notice, a Senate committee took up a bill that would, among other things, exempt the Secret Service from the act.

* Now, along comes Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas marching in the back door opened by his colleagues. He has proposed amendments to the Justice Department Authorization Bill that would narrow sharply the amount of information that a citizen can get from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No hearings have been held on the amendments, which will be taken up by Congress next month.

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What does all this mean? Put simply, it means this: Quite likely, it soon will no longer be possible to find out officially what the government is doing or how it is doing it. Is the back wheel likely to fall off your new bicyle? The government isn't saying. Does your employer discriminate? Does that factory on the edge of town pollute? Has the FBI investigated you in the past 10 years? Foes of the Freedom of Information Act would keep all this information secret.

The Freedom of Information Act was passed 15 years ago with the idea that journalists, historians, scholars -- and anyone else interested in government -- ought to be able to report on how the government works. It included nine broad exemptions so that no one could use the act to endanger national security, steal trade secrets, or foul up government investigations.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law, he said:

"This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to put up curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest."

There is no evidence that the act has ever been used to harm in any way any person, company, or investigation. Pressed repeatedly for examples of how the act has hurt government, officials simply come up empty-handed. The fact is, openness doesn't wound democracy; it is secrecy that hurts our freedom.

Yet the attacks continue. So far this year, more than 20 bills have been introduced to restrict access to government records. And, increasingly, the attacks have been the sneaky, back-door assaults such as those of this summer.

Why the fury? Perhaps it's because the act has been used to unearth information that has embarrased some politicians and bureaucrats. According to a recent study by the Library of Congress, more than 250 news stories have been written as a result of information pried out of the government by Americans armed with the Freedom of Information Act. Countless others have been written based on information gathered under threat of invoking the act.

Among these 250 stories, the Library of Congress said, were ones that disclosed the radiation danger to Utah residents as a result of the testing of atomic bombs, a story on the CIA confinement of a foreign political figure to a mental hospital, stories on President Nixon's attempts to pressure the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a story disclosing the fact that supervisors in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had some suspicion that the Three mile Island plant was dangerous.

To be sure, the act is expensive to operate. Some put the cost of finding, censoring, and copying documents at as much as $57 million a year. While that's a big number, put it in context: It's about the same as the price tag for two Army AH-64 helicopters or two F-15A airplanes. That seems a paltry price to pay for freedom.

The Freedom of Information Act was precisely drafted in order to protect fully all legitimate interests in national security, law enforcement, and business confidentiality, James Weighart, executive editor and former Washington bureau chief of the New york Daily News, told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this summer:

"As a result, it cannot be seriously claimed that the act has resulted in a compromise of those interests as a result of forced disclosure of information that should have remained confidential. Instead, what appears to be involved is a frontal attack on the principle of an open government that underlies the Freedom of Information Act. The words of James Madison bear consideration in this respect: 'A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but the prologue to a farce of tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.'"

Where are you now that we need you, President Madison?

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