WASHINGTON – The Associated Press and other news organizations are encouraging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) to rescind a policy restricting public access to government information.
The change was put in place by Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft, shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Where agencies were once encouraged to disclose unless disclosure would do harm, they are currently encouraged to withhold if there are legal grounds for doing so," AP president and chief executive officer Tom Curley said in a letter to Gonzales. "We think this change was a terrible mistake."
In an AP interview this week, Gonzales said he would reconsider the Freedom of Information Act (search) (FOIA) guidance established by Ashcroft.
Deanna Sands, managing editor of the Omaha, Neb., World-Herald and president of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, also sent a letter to Gonzales encouraging him to change the policy because Americans "deserve a more responsive government."
Lucy Dalglish, executive director for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said her organization is preparing a letter that will be endorsed by some 30 journalism organizations.
"We looked at his statement as an invitation to make suggestions for improving the situation," Dalglish said.
During the Clinton administration, federal agencies were urged to resolve FOIA requests by erring on the side of releasing, not withholding, government information.
Ashcroft changed that policy by making federal agencies carefully consider national security and law enforcement concerns before releasing information. The memo said to release information requested under the FOIA "only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interest that could be implicated by disclosure of the information."
More than 4 million FOIA requests were made to the federal government last year from the public and the media. Many requests drag on without resolution for years.
President Bush said last spring he would look at ways to speed FOIA responses, acknowledging there is "suspicion" his administration is too security-conscious.
Curley said the Ashcroft guidance "has been a major contributor to the troubled relations between this administration and the news media."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment.