WASHINGTON - Congress struck back yesterday at the Bush administration's trend toward secrecy since the 2001 terrorist attacks, passing legislation to toughen the Freedom of Information Act and increasing penalties on agencies that do not comply.
The White House would not say whether President Bush would sign the bill, which passed the House unanimously by voice vote yesterday a few days after sailing through the Senate. Without Bush's signature, it would become law during the congressional recess that begins next week.
It would be the first makeover of the FOIA in a decade, among other things bringing nonproprietary information held by government contractors under the law.
The bill also aims to reverse an order issued by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about whether doing so would affect national security.
Administration allies successfully insisted on stripping out language that would have explicitly reversed Ashcroft's order. But with or without the provision, one of the sponsors said, the rewritten version that cleared Congress will have the intended effect of reversal.
"No matter who is the next president, he will have to run a government that is more open than in the past," if the bill becomes law, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) said.
Dozens of media outlets, including the Associated Press, supported the changes in the law. "This bill makes commonsense changes to help the public know what government is up to," said Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which represents 10 media organizations.
Agencies would have to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA requests. Their FOIA offices would have to forward requests for information to the appropriate agency office within 10 days of receiving them. Agencies that fail to meet the 20-day deadline would have to refund search and duplication fees for noncommercial requesters.
The bill also creates a system for the media and public to track the status of their FOIA requests.