The Ashcroft Memo

Sat, 22 Mar 2003 10:44:12 -0500

speaking of lies, disinformation, and cover ups: the National Security 
Archive report on Asscrackism:

THE ASHCROFT MEMO: "Drastic" Change or "More Thunder Than Lightning"?

The National Security Archive Freedom of Information Act Audit
Phase One Presented March 14, 2003
2003 National Freedom of Information Day Conference

Thomas Blanton, Director
Will Ferroggiaro, Director of the Freedom of Information Project
Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel
Barbara Elias, Research Associate

Download the entire report in Adobe PDF format (410KB)


"More than any of its recent predecessors, this administration has a 
penchant for secrecy."

-- David E. Rosenbaum, The New York Times Week in Review, 3 February 2002

"There is a veil of secrecy that is descending around the administration 
which I think is unseemly."

-- Rep. Dan Burton (R-In.) to ABC News, 22 February 2002

"Why does the White House sometimes seem so determined to close the door on 
the people's right to know what their government is doing?"

-- Mark Tapscott, Heritage Foundation, The Washington Post, 20 November 2002

Commentators ranging from senior Republican members of Congress to the 
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have described a dramatic new 
trend towards increased government secrecy - predating the terrible events 
of September 11th, but escalating since then as the United States moved to 
a war footing. Criticisms of the new secrecy have cited, among other 
exhibits, the October 12, 2001 Freedom of Information Act policy guidance 
issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft. For example, an editorial in the 
San Francisco Chronicle asserted that the guidance effectively repealed the 
FOIA ("The Day Ashcroft Censored Freedom of Information," January 6, 2002); 
and a recent Associated Press article referred to the guidance as meaning 
that "Ashcroft ended the practice of cooperating with Freedom of 
Information Act requests ...." ("The post-Sept. 11 John Ashcroft," February 
24, 2003). In contrast, senior career officials have characterized the 
Ashcroft guidance as "more continuity than change"; and line FOIA officers 
who process the hundreds of FOIA requests filed by the National Security 
Archive ("the Archive") each year have in routine conversation downplayed 
the impact of the guidance.

To test these contrasting views, the National Security Archive last year 
initiated a "Freedom of Information Act Audit" - borrowing the methodology 
developed by state and local journalism groups to file simultaneous FOIA 
requests at multiple agencies and offices, and compile the results in order 
to identify the best and worst practices. The Archive began with the 25 
agencies included in two recent General Accounting Office studies of 
implementation of the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments 
[2001 Report - 2002 Report], a group that accounts for 97% of all FOIA 
processing in the federal government. The Archive added 10 other agencies 
with significant FOIA efforts, for a total of 35 agencies in the audit. For 
the substantive focus of the audit, the Archive began with the Ashcroft 
memorandum, but soon expanded to include the March 19, 2002 White House 
memorandum issued by Chief of Staff Andrew Card, as well as the 
long-standing issue of agency backlogs.

This report summarizes the findings of the First Phase of the National 
Security Archive FOIA Audit, focusing on the Attorney General's guidance 
from October 2001. This report also includes preliminary findings from 
Phase Two of the Audit, regarding the White House memorandum from March 
2002; but this portion of the Audit is not yet complete. Phase Three of the 
Audit is examining the backlog problem, as well as the inadequacy of agency 
reporting in the annual FOIA reports concerning delays in processing, 
through a set of FOIA requests for the "10 Oldest" pending requests at each 
of the 35 agencies. For a complete discussion of the methodology, the texts 
and dates of the FOIA requests, and the findings, see below. The Archive 
gratefully acknowledges the support of the John S. and James L. Knight 
Foundation in making this FOIA Audit possible.