How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right to Know
The need for accurate, detailed, and complete information about the changes occurring in the fabric and texture of our political and security landscape is critical. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has just released the second edition of their white paper, "Homefront Confidential, How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right to Know."  This invaluable report details the increasingly dangerous risks posed by the suppression of information. Excerpts from the Foreword include:
"We live in a nation built on the concept of balance. When the government, with the best of intentions, goes too far in its efforts to shield information from the public, it is up to the public and the media to push back. Through a vibrant, information-based democratic process in our legislatures and through an independent judiciary, we as a society will come to a balance that hopefully will protect our liberties for generations to come.
"The Reporters Committee's Homefront Confidential `White Paper' was first published in March 2002. This second edition published on the first anniversary of September 11 incorporates a threat assessment to the public's right to know based on the color-coded scheme used by the Department of Homeland Security. Just as the government assesses threats to the nation's security, this report assesses how government actions have affected the media's ability to provide information to the public.
"We believe the public's right to know is severely threatened in the areas of changes to freedom of information laws, war coverage and access to terrorism and immigration proceedings. This report describes in detail why the public should be concerned about the information it is not getting." 
Also available as a 66-page PDF file, this report is essential reading to educate our selves, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, on the dangers we face with the concerted and expanding moves by U.S. government officials to limit, control, and/or stop the flow of information, a core element of any free society. It includes a four-page chronology of events listing 91 days of news over the past year that identify key issues regarding information access. This is followed by eight chapters identified with threat levels (indicating Severe risk to a free press, High risk to a free press, etc.) and color codes based on those created by the Department of Homeland Security.
Covering the warDespite improvements in access to battlefields abroad in the United States' war on terrorism, military officials continue to keep journalists at a long arm's length from the action. The result: A war carried on in the name of the American people with the possibility of little public accountability either now or in years to come. Military tribunalsA year after the September 11 attacks, the United States has yet to initiate a military tribunal. But the paperwork and guidelines are in place. And open government advocates worry that should the White House embark on the tribunal option to try suspected terrorists, another casualty would be openness. Access to terrorism & immigration proceedingsTraditionally, hearings involving immigrants and material witnesses operated under a presumption of openness. But post-September 11, secrecy stands as the default status for access, making it difficult -- if not impossible -- for the American public and the press to learn about detainees and material witnesses. Domestic coverageAfter facing sporadic restrictions on domestic newsgathering after September 11, reporters stateside have enjoyed mostly restraint-free coverage in the last few months. The reporter's privilegeA recent court decision and the development of a national terrorism watch program heighten worries that law enforcement and judges might become more likely to treat journalists as government agents. The USA PATRIOT ActIt is still unclear how or when the FBI's expanded wiretapping powers will affect journalists, but the Justice Department has shown that it intends to use its powers aggressively, notwithstanding a rare public rebuke by a secret court that almost always approves the department's warrant requests. Freedom of InformationFederal FOI Act officers now act under directions from the Attorney General to give strong consideration to exemptions before handing out information, and from the White House to protect "sensitive but unclassified" information. Federal Web sites have come down. And a measure to protect "homeland security" records could be passed soon. The rollback in state opennessA number of states jumped into the legislative fray soon after September 11, but many of the more severe proposals died before a vote or were modified to accommodate access concerns.
Direct and unfettered public access to government information is critical to the vitality of a free society. Bush II has a propensity for secrecy and obfuscation. On 1 November 2001, Bush Jr. signed Executive Order 13233, which violated the 1978 Presidential Records Act (PRA). The PRA was passed in 1978 as a response to President Nixon's attempt to control access to his documents and the infamous Watergate tape recordings. It decreed that the records of presidents and vice-presidents are public property, and must be made available to historians, journalists and the public no later than twelve years after the president or vice-president leaves office. This Executive Order halted the pending release to the public of some 68,000 pages of records of former President Ronald Reagan, which should have been released in January 2001, twelve years after President Reagan left office. Much has been written about how Bush Jr.'s move prevents knowledge of more of the classified facts of Reagan's eight years including the constitutional crises known as Iran Contra, while Bush Sr. was Vice President.
The Freedom to Read Foundation (organized by the American Library Association in 1969) provides an educational entry point into the Freedom of Information Act, an essential tool in the struggle for freedom of information, freedom of expression, and other first amendment rights in our age of increasingly secretive governance. Established in 1958, the Freedom of Information Center serves the general public and the media on questions regarding access to government documents and information. The FoI Center and its founders were central to the effort to enact the national Freedom of Information Act. The FoI Center is part of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and supports its mission of providing an independent voice to protect the public's right to know.
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