CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush on Monday signed a bill aimed at giving the public and the media greater access to information about what the government is doing.
The new law toughens the Freedom of Information Act, the first such makeover to the signature public-access law in a decade. It amounts to a congressional pushback against the Bush administration's movement to greater secrecy since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Bush signed the bill without comment in one of his final decisions of the year.
The legislation creates a system for the media and public to track the status of their FOIA requests. It establishes a hot line service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.
The law also restores a presumption of a standard that orders government agencies to release information on request unless there is a finding that disclosure could do harm.
Agencies would be required to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA requests. Nonproprietary information held by government contractors also would be subject to the law.
The legislation is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the 9/11 attacks in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security.
Dozens of media outlets, including The Associated Press, supported the legislation.
Last year, the government received 21.4 million requests for information under the 40-year-old law, according to statistics provided by the Justice Department. The government processed nearly the same number of requests, which was almost 1.5 million more than processed during the previous fiscal year, according to the department.