Using the Freedom of Information Act

We spent months trying to get officials at the New Jersey jails used by Homeland Security to talk to us about detainees' allegations. Some declined to talk to us; others never responded to our phone calls and letters.

We also tried to obtain detailed records from the jails that might reveal exactly what happened on the days when detainees allege that guards beat them or terrorized them with dogs. But officials at the jails and at the Department of Homeland Security thwarted us.

As you might know, there's a powerful legal tool that citizens can use to pry information out of the government: the Freedom of Information Act of 1966. The law declares that the government must give the public access to government records and information, except in limited cases — such as if releasing the information might threaten national security. Over the years, journalists and community activists have used the law to get documents that expose all kinds of government activities — from records showing that the FBI harassed civil rights leaders to those showing that government officials ignored airline safety problems.

We used the law to try to get detailed records about violent incidents involving detainees and guards from the Passaic, Hudson and Bergen county jails in New Jersey. We sent official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the jails that house detainees. We asked for:

— reports, notes, memoranda and other communications which officers at the jails wrote about specific detainees, on or around the specific dates when detainees say they were assaulted

— medical records for the detainees who allege that they were beaten up by guards or attacked by dogs

— photographs that detainees say were taken of their injuries

— We even asked for video or digital recordings from the security cameras that monitored the rooms where detainees allege they were attacked.

We filed those requests in June. As of today, officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the jails haven't sent us a single one of those items that we requested.

We did manage to get some jail documents through unofficial channels — and those documents helped NPR reconstruct what happened in the county jails.

NPR is by no means the only media company discovering that Bush administration officials are routinely ignoring or rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests. The nonpartisan Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has found that officials across the government routinely refuse to release documents, often on the grounds that it would interfere with "national security."

"This is by far the worst time that journalists have had (using FOIA) in more than 30 years," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee.

Shortly after Sept. 11, departing Attorney General John Ashcroft put out a memo that in effect encouraged federal officials to keep their documents secret.

"This is an administration that places a very high intrinsic value on secrecy," Dalglish says. "In the guise of 'national security,' they have shut down access to lots and lots of information that has traditionally been open to journalists."

A federal investigation seems to confirm it. Last year, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported on a survey of federal officials. One-third of the respondents said they were less likely to release government documents under the policies of the current White House than they were under previous administrations.

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