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Choosing Bin Laden's privacy over open government

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There are some things the Federal Bureau of Investigation won't tell you, of course. The surprising thing is what some of those things are.

The FBI blanked out certain names when it released documents to a group seeking information about the family of Osama bin Laden. Consider this excerpt from one such document:

"There is some confusion as to the total number of BLANK siblings."

Gee, who in the world could Blank possibly be -- in a request for information about bin Laden's family?

More bizarre are the FBI whiteouts in the footnotes, which say where it got information on the number of, um, Blank's siblings.

There's a Sept. 13, 2001, Washington Post article headlined, "Blank Blank, a `Master Impresario."' And an Associated Press story two days later: "Blank Blank Aims to Ride 'Infidels."'

More information came from this report on Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: "Afghanistan: Who is Blank and What Makes Him Tick?"

Let's see. We have one government agency refusing to disclose that the leader of al-Qaeda was the subject of a story aired around the world by another government-funded agency.

Why would the FBI bother to obscure such publicly available, easy-to-discern information?

Because the agency won't name anyone "of investigative interest to the FBI," the FBI says in citing the legal exemption to disclosure. Being under FBI scrutiny carries a "negative connotation," the agency notes in court papers.

Man of mystery

Well, of course. We can't have the FBI going around saying it's investigating the man who claims to be behind the Sept. 11, 2001 murder of thousands of Americans, can we? That might have a negative connotation -- even for a man who is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

This is only a ridiculous example of a serious, widespread practice. Public interest groups, journalists, scholars and citizens trying to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out about the workings of government are finding more and more obstacles in their way, some of them absurd.

To get even that censored document on bin Laden, a Washington-based group called Judicial Watch had to go to court to obtain a couple hundred pages. Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, is looking into reports that the FBI helped whisk bin Laden's relatives and members of the royal Saudi family out of the U.S. immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.

Decades of cases

That is only one of 14 separate cases Judicial Watch has pending under the government information law, according to Christopher Farrell, the group's director of investigations and research. And Judicial Watch, which has been pressing the government for information for almost a decade, is only one of who knows how many groups, news organizations and other parties suing under the Freedom of Information Act.

Enacted in 1966 on the notion that an informed citizenry will demand better government, the federal law known as FOIA is supposed to give the public quick access to most government information. It has been used to uncover underage children working in factories, dangerously poor care in military hospitals and the explosive rear end of the Ford Pinto.

Using the same law, the American Civil Liberties Union took the government to court to force disclosure of thousands of military records. They show far more widespread abuse of U.S. detainees than revealed last year at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Avoiding court fights

The law is supposed to provide access to information without a court fight, but the 39-year-old statute has a rich history of government resistance to turning over especially embarrassing information.

The Clinton administration, for example, resisted FOIA requests for records about contacts by government officials with environmental groups and records about Hillary Clinton's health care task force.

As a journalist told President George W. Bush at a gathering of newspaper editors earlier this month, his paper has FOIA requests still unanswered after two decades.

But this administration's tendency toward secrecy, plus the extra precautions stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led wars, have tightened Washington's grip on information.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued two memos in 2001, one before Sept. 11 and another after, that reversed previous policy so that agencies could be freer in denying FOIA requests.

Denying requests

"Since this administration came in, they have changed their internal interpretation of how it is to be implemented," Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a telephone interview this week.

"It makes it easier to deny a request if it can be alleged that national security or privacy" is at stake, she said.

No one is advocating turning over classified information to the enemy. But there is a long distance between, say, revealing how to detonate America's nuclear arsenal and disclosing a headline in a major U.S. newspaper.

A group that gathers data on government operations this month sued the Internal Revenue Service after it refused to give out the same sort of information it has released in previous years.

Connected with Syracuse University, TRAC, for Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, analyzes IRS data and reports patterns on who gets audited and who wins appeals, for example.

IRS data

For the first time this year, the IRS has said it can't give out the information TRAC wants because the agency hasn't compiled it. So TRAC asked for information on IRS data collection methods, which led to refusals, partly on national security grounds, which led to the lawsuit.

A bill co-sponsored by senators who are normally on opposite ends of the political debate, Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, would speed up responses to FOIA requests, hold officials accountable for frivolous denials and establish an ombudsman to mediate disputes short of going to court.

As for the bin Laden document, "There are rules and laws that apply, and you can't just make exceptions in cases where you think it may be obvious," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.

And yet, the FBI itself acknowledges a balancing test when it comes to many of these decisions. The government must weigh ``the privacy interests of the individuals mentioned in these records against any public interest in disclosure," Nancy Steward of the bureau's records management division said in an affidavit filed in court.

What this case makes clear is that the scale is in bad need of re-adjustment.

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