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I can only appeal to you to put aside the hostility you must feel toward a critic and controversialist who sometimes embarrasses, often irritates, sometimes angers you. We all have a higher duty: to serve the people, who are the real sovereigns of this Nation.
If the American idea is valid, an exposure once in awhile, like the pruning of a rotten branch, will only strengthen the great tree that grows not in darkness but in sunlight.
Mr. Chairman, more distinguished witnesses than myself are waiting to testify. I am willing therefore to make the hasty exit or if you have questions and prefer to keep me in the hotseat to stay long enough to answer them.
Mr. ENGLISH. Thank you, Mr. Anderson. If you could wait we will hear from Mr. Polk and we would like to address some questions to each of you. Mr. Polk, would you proceed. STATEMENT OF JIM POLK, NBC NEWS, ON BEHALF OF
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS AND EDITORS, INC. Mr. POLK. Thank you. Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I am appearing here today on behalf of Investigative Reports and Editors of which I am chairman. I have been directed to appear here today by a vote of the membership of this organization at its annual meeting in San Diego 3 weeks ago. I appear with great reluctance. I suspect I am treading close to a professional conflict of interest just sitting at this table and I know I am treading precariously close to violation of one of my beliefs that reporters are entitled to no special privileges beyond that any member of the public merits. But I think we have before us a public concern, not an issue of reporters' privilege.
I would like to read you portions of the resolution adopted by my organization in opposition to any amendments to narrow the Freedom of Information Act. I would ask that it be printed in full.
We share the belief that democracy can thrive only in an open society, and that an informed citizenry is essential to sustain a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.
But we recognize the cost and inconvenience sometimes imposed on government agencies to comply with citizens' requests for information. We believe that the cost of secrecy and ignorance is infinitely higher.
I have also brought with me and submitted to the subcommittee a statement prepared by a member of the Board of Investigative Reporters, Jack Taylor of the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. Jack hoped to be here today but his wife is undergoing surgery this morning so he asked me to appear in his place. I think Jack Taylor's statement is notable because he is not one of the pack of Washington-based reporters. He is out there in the flatlands of Oklahoma. From Oklahoma City over the last decade he has filed some 2,500 requests under the Freedom of Information Act. That has pried loose the documents that have enabled him to write stories on the My Lai massacre, forced repatriation of Russian dissidents, the Teamsters pension fund, waste and mismanagement in Indian programs, military unpreparedness, and other topics. To my knowledge, no reporter has used the Freedom of Information Act more than he. I would request that Mr. Taylor's statement be published in full with my testimony. I would like to urge each of you to take the time to read this short statement, particularly the final paragraph, in which Mr. Taylor says:
The trend toward more secrecy in government is a throwback to the days before the FOIA when government was less accountable, and, consequently, less responsive to the needs of the public. If any of the proposed amendments to the FOIA become law, it will be the public that will suffer the most. In the final analysis, the interests of the governed are not best served by looking solely to the interest of the gover
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Taylor, even though I cannot personally speak from the standpoint of experience with the Freedom of Information Act that he has had. I admit I use this law as little as possible. When I have done so, I, like so many others, have encountered delay and denial by bureaucratic dilly-dallying. I can see why those who administer this might consider the law a nuisance. They certainly have succeeded in making it a nuisance for any of us to use it.
So, I find myself in a strange position today trying to defend this nuisance. I must confess that none of my stories—not a single one-that I have done in 14 years as a Washington journalist has come through the Freedom of Information Act. Oh, I believe in people as sources, and paperwork as proof, and I will go looking for the person in Government with the piece of paper I need, and I will knock my head against the wall trying to persuade him or her that public interest is best served by an informed public-and all of us will continue doing that, no matter how much the Freedom of Information Act may be mangled.
No one should hope to get rid of reporters by getting rid of the Freedom of Information Act. The stories will still come. The public may not be as well served—the stories may not be as thorough, as complete, as helpful to public understanding as the ones pried loose by those with the patience to persevere in the face of bureaucrats who seem to feel, in civil service, time is never of the essence, particularly in administering this particular law.
While I cannot defend the Freedom of Information Act out of personal conviction and experience, as it is administered today, I can, and do, ardently defend it in principle-a principle which I suggest to you is of vital importance in the way we have conceived and perceive our Government.
I believe the public does have a right to know-a right to access to information on how its Government is working. Government is a public trust, not a possession or property of those who come to occupy office by election, appointment or civil service. I think it is a great honor to be chosen to serve the public politically. But office is a privilege, not a property, as each of you well knows. I do not think that those who are permitted to administer the laws that you pass are entitled to secrecy any more than you would claim it for your own actions. This Government belongs to the public. Its power comes from the public. And, I firmly believe, the American public must have the right of access to information about how its Government is functioning, if the public is to have the opportunity to make informed, intelligent decisions about the course of its Government. Now, that right of access to information does not have to be used. It may work imperfectly. But the right should exist, and should be undeniable.
It is a nuisance-an expensive one-to print the Congressional Record every day, with your doggerel and debates and voting records. I doubt if any citizen in any of your congressional districts
has read a single day's Congressional Record from beginning to end. I am certain that none of those constituents can cite your voting record on every issue on which you voted in the past years. Few of them would be familiar with anything but the scantiest details on your voting records. But that does not mean that each and every one of them does not have the right, should he or she choose to use it, to find out how you voted on any issue. It is that right which is crucial, and well worth the expense.
Yes, the Freedom of Information Act is an expensive nuisance, but we pay certain prices for our form of government and the Freedom of Information Act is only a pittance of that price. I think there is a basic choice to be made here, between a government that remains open to the public's right of opportunity to access to information about its government, and a government that some might seek to close for well-meaning but insufficient reasons of cost or proprietary convenience. Whether that public right is used well, or at all, does not diminish the principle, in my mind, that the right should exist.
I must confess, perhaps to your surprise, that many reporters believe in government. It would be a mistake to think of reporters in terms of any narrow geographical band or political leaning. The reporters in this city whom I know who have won Pulitzer Prizes in recent years come from such hometowns as El Reno, Okla.; Biloxi, Miss.; Long Beach, Calif.; Oaktown, Ind.; Webster City, Iowa; Lynn, Mass. If they share any one ideological stripe, it is a belief, unbroken through the years, that: In the public, we can trust. I think that is the whole basis of democracy. I think each of you share that belief, that trust. I urge you not to abandon it today for arguments of convenience.
What is being offered this subcommittee are well-meaning mechanics for easier handling of a nuisance-a government closed to the public would indeed be easier to operate-but what is being proposed is a piecemeal dismantling of a public right that I believe is fundamental to our form of government, a right from which we should never retreat.
If I may repeat myself, "The cost of secrecy and ignorance is infinitely higher."
Thank you gentlemen. Mr. ENGLISH. Thank you, Mr. Polk. I noticed that the testimony of both you, Mr. Anderson, and you, Mr. Polk, alluded to an impression that these hearings are a prelude to a dismantling or a weakening of the Freedom of Information Act. As I stated, I personally view this as an opportunity not only to make adjustments but to also strengthen. What do you see as the greatest frustration that the news media has in using the Freedom of Information Act? How can we make it more effective for the press?
Mr. Polk. I will cite Mr. Taylor's statement as the person who has used the Freedom of Information Act 2,500 times. If there is an expert out of experience it would be he. He cites four problems with it. The first involves the broad exemptions which create enough loopholes that a determined bureaucrat can withhold practically any document he wants from the public by claiming it fits into one of the general categories of exempt material.
The second involves the lack of any compulsion for judicial review of material said to be classified in the interests of national security or foreign policy.
The third involves the lack of any requirements to respond to requests for information and records within a reasonable length of time, permitting unnecessary footdragging and deliberate delays. I can cite many of those, I think any of my colleagues who have attempted to use the Freedom of Information Act can cite those as time never seems to be of the essence. Finally the fourth involves the lack of precise limitations on the type and amount of fees that may be assessed. I do not think this is as important as the lack of judicial review on foreign policy exemptions, the question of the latitude to apply general exemptions-in a way that at least extends the time and the battle, and the lack of any compulsion to answer
quickly. Mr. ENGLISH. I might request unanimous consent at this point that Mr. Jack Taylor's full complete testimony be included in the record.
[Mr. Taylor's prepared statement follows:)
STATEMENT of JACK H. TAYLOR JR. to the GOVERNMENT INFORMATION and INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS SUBCOMMITTEE of the COMMITTEE on GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS of the UNITED STATES HOUSE of REPRESENTATIVES
an investigative reporter employed by The Daily Okla
homan and Oklahoma City Times, general circulation daily news
papers published by The Oklahoma Publishing Company of Oklahoma
also a member of the Steering Committee of the Report
Committee for Freedom of the Press, in Washington, and am
member of the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and
Editors, Inc., an Indiana non-profit journalistic education and
As a working journalist, I have used the freedom of Informa
tion Act [5 U.S.C. 552), approximately 2,500 times during the
I have been able to obtain to make my reporting more thorough
and thus better serve the public interests.
It has been frust
raiting because of all too frequent denials of information by
government bureaucrats more intent
on suppression and obfusca
tion than on disclosure.