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House Panel OKs Legislation to Strengthen Freedom of Information Act

Legislation to make federal agencies more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests was approved by a House panel Tuesday.

The measure would restore a "presumption of disclosure" standard that would commit agencies to releasing requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.

That would be a shift away from instructions to agencies made by Attorney General John Ashcroft after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks advising against the release of information when there was any uncertainty over security or law enforcement exemptions.

The bill, approved by voice vote in the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on information policy, would take steps to ensure that agencies abide by the 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA requests and give requesters tracking numbers so they can check the status of their requests.

It would create a FOIA ombudsman to help requesters resolve problems without resorting to litigation and direct the Government Accountability Office to report annually on the Homeland Security Department's use of broad disclosure exemptions for "critical infrastructure information."

The bill would streamline the process and increase transparency in a system plagued by long delays and bureaucratic obstacles, said sponsor Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., chairman of the panel. He said the full committee would take up the legislation later this week.

The federal government receives millions of FOIA requests every year. Many drag on for months or years without resolution.

The panel also endorsed legislation to amend the Presidential Records Act to overturn an executive order issued by President Bush in 2001 that gives current and former presidents and vice presidents authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely.

Under the act, presidential records are supposed to be released to historians and the public 12 years after the end of a presidential administration.