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Originally published Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 6:30 PM

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Guest columnist

Bring the Freedom of Information Act into the digital

Though President Obama promised a more transparent government, some agencies have increased their use of legal exemptions to keep information from public view. Guest columnists Gadi Dechter and Reece Rushing urge Congress to bring the Freedom of Information Act into the digital age.

Special to The Times

EIGHT years after a Seattle man requested safety information about explosive weapons stored in Puget Sound, the U.S. Supreme Court last week said the Navy's excuse for keeping the information secret violated the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

The 8-1 decision, uniting ideological opposites on the high court, is a victory for advocates of open government. It's also a reminder of how hard it can be to get public officials to release information that rightfully belongs in the public domain.

That's why Congress should usher FOIA into the 21st century by harnessing the power of the Internet to automate the release of public records, and create one searchable online repository of all record requests and responses. John Podesta, former White House chief of staff and president of the Center for American Progress, urged Congress to adopt those reforms in a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

While President Barack Obama has in many ways delivered on his campaign pledge to preside over the most transparent government in history, his administration's record of complying with the freedom of information law remains disappointing.

Federal agencies increased their use of legal exemptions to keep records secret during Obama's first year in office, the Associated Press reported. Indeed, only five of the 28 agencies that handle most FOIA requests have both released more records and denied fewer requests last year, according to a study released Monday by the nonprofit National Security Archive.

The problem isn't with White House policy, but with government execution. The federal government is a massive bureaucracy in which officials, wary of embarrassment, have myriad incentives to limit the release of information. One way around that problem is to use technology to circumvent bureaucracy itself.

Just as the Obama administration has democratized public sector data by releasing hundreds of thousands of datasets through Data.gov, it can combat stubborn agency cultures and overworked officials by automating FOIA compliance. Congress can help by setting standards for exactly what information — legal memos, performance evaluations, ethics disclosures, etc. — should be reflexively disclosed.

Lawmakers should also take a cue from the Mexican government's Infomex system, and create a single point of entry for the public to request and view government information that falls under the Freedom of Information Act — including records of previous requests. Only a handful of agencies today post logs showing the FOIA requests they've received, and even fewer provide responses.

A free and public site of this type would be a centerpiece of the president's Open Government Initiative, which has already given birth to valuable data troves including Recovery.gov and the federal IT Dashboard, says Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft Corp.'s Bing search division. "Technologically, it's entirely feasible to create a searchable database that automatically makes available public records from across the entire government, and it would be a welcome development," Weitz says.

A FOIA database would also consolidate redundant requests, cut down on administrative overhead, and reduce the government's cost of complying with the law.

Hopefully, it would also obviate the need for lawsuits like those filed by Glen Milner, the area activist suing the Navy for information about what would happen if weapons stored at Naval Magazine Indian Island accidentally exploded.

To be sure, not all information should be released. The law appropriately shields records such as military plans, intelligence sources, and individual tax returns. But a healthy democracy requires a strong "presumption in favor of disclosure," as Obama said on his first day in office.

As for Milner, his eight-year journey through the courts continues. The Supreme Court has sent the case back down to the lower courts, where the Navy may make other arguments for withholding the information.

Gadi Dechter, far left, and Reece Rushing are associate director and director of government reform, respectively, at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

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