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Keeping citizens in the dark Public action is the only solution to an increasingly secret government

Your government spied on Americans without the approval of a court created to oversee such espionage.

Your government keeps countless documents secret -- including some that may reveal the truth behind the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, the details of the Sago mine disaster and environmental threats nationwide.

And now the Bush administration is reclassifying some documents it had already made public.

In other words, here at the start of Sunshine Week 2006, Americans face a harsh reality: a government that wants to keep you in the dark about key topics.

A year after the nation's newspapers and open-government advocates teamed up on a week-long effort to promote the public's right to know, that right looks more fragile than ever.

Which is why the promoters of this year's Sunshine Week, which runs from today through Saturday, say it's time for the public to fight back.

"I have never, ever seen government more intent on shutting down the flow of information," said Hodding Carter III, an award-winning print and broadcast journalist who once served as the State Department's chief spokesman. "This is just an extraordinary moment. It's just vital for people to stand up and say: we want an open government."

The Buffalo News and hundreds of other newspapers and broadcast outlets, along with groups like the American Library Association and the League of Women Voters, are doing just that. They're devoting space in the papers to the issue, sponsoring public discussions of it. And as always, seeking the kind of documents that tell the real story of how government works, or how it doesn't.

But to be frank, you need to help yourselves.

We need American citizens to be as outraged as we are.

>Warrantless wiretapping

To be sure, there's plenty to be outraged about. Despite the light shone on these issues during last year's Sunshine Week, hardly a week goes by without more proof that the government is clamping down further on the public's right to know.

Asked to choose the worst from such an ever-growing list of travesties, many open-government advocates point first and foremost to the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

Revealed last year by the New York Times, the program allows the National Security Agency to listen to phone calls between Americans and their contacts overseas.

Of course, the agency already had that right. Under a 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, all the federal government had to do was go to a special court for approval.

It's won such approval thousands of times while that court has rejected only four wiretap requests in its entire history, as of 2004. Yet the Bush administration decided it had to circumvent the law.

To advocates of open government, it's a sign of something chilling. It's a sign of a government that sees itself as above the law, a government that doesn't want to deal with the untidy details of democracy such as the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

>A pattern of secrecy

The Bush administration says the secret spying program is necessary to quickly find terrorists before they strike, but Carter sees the program as infringing on basic American freedoms.

"We don't want government, in the name of saving the country, to burn it down," said Carter, a former correspondent for PBS's "Frontline" who serves as honorary chairman of this year's Sunshine Week.

Open-government advocates say the spying program is just another sign that this administration is among the most secretive in American history.

Americans are paying a price for that secrecy. On one issue after another, they're not getting the full story. Take, for example, Hurricane Katrina. In its stinging report on the government response OVER 105 LNsto the storm, a Republican-led House committee said its findings were limited by the White House's refusal to release its own records on the storm.

Remember, this is also the administration that went to court to prevent disclosures about the energy-industry executives who helped draw up its energy policy, the administration that withheld the news of Vice President Cheney's recent hunting accident for nearly a day.

This tone of secrecy has trickled down to other federal agencies.

For example, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been reluctant to release records detailing the Sago mine disaster, which claimed 12 lives in West Virginia in January.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that a plan to protect the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure from terrorist attacks remains locked away at the Department of Homeland Security -- hidden from the state and local officials it was designed to help.

And perhaps most laughable of all, federal intelligence agencies have begun reclassifying all sorts of historic documents some dating back to the Korean War for no particular reason.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, senses a pattern here.

"We have a problem in our government," Aftergood said, "and its name is secrecy."

>Vital documents

It's a problem that hits home in neighborhoods all across the country. Under an October 2001 memo written by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, agencies have much more leeway in denying requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which is designed to force the federal government to keep most of its records open.

And that change in the FOIA law is making it much more difficult to get records about chemical releases from local industries, along with all sorts of other information, said Nancy Tate, executive director of the League of Women Voters.

"There are a lot of in-my-community facts that people would want to know that are now being withheld," Tate said.

Thankfully, New York State's corresponding Freedom of Information Law has not been curtailed that way. Last year alone, documents released under that law resulted in:

* A Buffalo News series that revealed that big liquor companies paid off favored retailers and that the State Liquor Authority had been letting them get away with it. After the series, the SLA's two top officials left the agency.

* The Albany Times-Union reported that the State Thruway Authority wasn't collecting millions in E-ZPass tolls and fines that it was owed prompting the state to hire a collection agency to do the job.

* The New York Times revealed widespread fraud and abuse in the state Medicaid program that were costing taxpayers billions a year. Gov. George E. Pataki responded with an overhaul of the watchdog agencies overseeing the program.

"Here is a series, based on the Freedom of Information Law, that will save taxpayers millions and millions of dollars," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government.

We'll never know, though, how much money could have been saved if federal FOIA requests hadn't been denied, or partially denied, or fought for months if not years by federal bureaucrats.

That fact alone should make you mad. If you pay taxes, government secrecy especially at the federal level is probably costing you money.

>A plan for action

What to do about it? Get involved.

Check out the Web sites listed with this story, which will help you learn more about a growing open-government movement that involves not only the media but that is growing all across the political spectrum.

Then, as Carter suggests, you can write to members of Congress or President Bush to object to the government's growing penchant for secrecy.

And if there's something you want to know about or from your government, just ask. File a Freedom of Information Act request yourself; one of the accompanying links will show you how.

It might seem intimidating, but it's all part of the hard work of living in a democracy.

As Aftergood said, "All of us need to do a better job as citizens."

And if we don't, there's no telling what we'll never know.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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>How you can help fight government secrecy

To learn more about open government -- and how you can help make it more open -- visit the following Web sites:

* The Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy (www.fas.org/sgp/): Site features regularly updated government secrecy news and a blog on the topic.

* The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center (www.firstamendmentcenter.org): Works to protect freedom of the press and free speech.

* League of Women Voters (www.lwv.org): Includes a link to "Looking for Sunshine: Protecting Your Right to Know," a resource guide to state and federal public information laws.

* The National Freedom of Information Center (www.nfoic.org): Develops Freedom of Information programs nationwide and educates the public on such issues.

* New York State Committee on Open Government (www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/coogwww.html): Oversees the state Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Personal Privacy Protection laws. Includes a series of frequently asked questions about how to use the state Freedom of Information Law.

* Open the Government (www.openthegovernment.org): A coalition of groups and individuals working to improve access to government records. Site includes a statement of values that individuals can sign. Group also sends open-government news to interested citizens via email.

* Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (www.rcfp.org): Site includes a detailed explanation of how to file a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

* Sunshine in Government Initiative (www.sunshineingovernment.com): A coalition of media advocates pushing for passage of the Open Government Act, which aims to reduce delays and increase the amount of information available under the Freedom of Information Act.

-- Jerry Zremski

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