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In the middle of Sunshine Week, Justice Department urges changes to protect new category of gov’t secrets


Sunshine Week isn’t about the weather or maintaining a shining attitude this week.

It is a national initiative to promote a dialogue and educate the public about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

It was launched in March of 2005 by the American Society of News Editors. The organization chose this week to coincide with James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day, March 16th.

“The Sunshine Week initiative is increasing public awareness, it’s coming up more often in policy conversations, and the efforts of participants are being cited as real forces for moving the public away from simply accepting excessive and unwarranted government secrecy,” explained on Sunshineweek.org.

This Sunday, the beginning of Sunshine Week, you may have seen newspapers publish a list of how to contact local lawmakers in honor of the initiative.

So it might come as a bit of a shock to learn that today, the government urged Congress to keep secret a whole new category of information even under the Freedom of Information Act.

Apparently, the White House organized a conference call with two senior administration officials to preview an announcement by President Barack Obama about an important China trade issue but told reporters that no one could be quoted by name, reports AP.

The officials were U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman.

A little background on the Freedom of Information Act, “Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.”

Each agency handles their own request, there is no set fee, no set form and anyone can make a request.

The White House has drawn criticism in the past for promising to be transparent and yet declining access to information such as the name and vintage of wines served during the June 2011 state dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

While amusing, this isn’t so we all start bombarding the White House with requests. The point of Sunshine week is to increase public awareness and participation so that we can become real forces for moving the public away from simply accepting excessive and unwarranted government secrecy.

Whether you blog about it or write your lawmakers about the importance of open government and the freedom of information, I encourage you to stay informed. Knowledge is power people.

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