Today’s news from Oceana . . .

 . . . comes from David Cay Johnston at Newsweek, who reports on the decreasing willingness of federal agencies to give the public access to . . . wait for it . . . public information. Beyond the usual stonewalling of agencies that, for example, plead poverty yet insist on releasing stacks of records on paper instead of a free email, federal officials are now deciding whether they like the reason why you’re asking for information:

[Author and former LA Times reporter Dennis] McDougal wants Drug Enforcement Administration records of David Wheeler, a shadowy entertainment industry figure who died in 2001. Wheeler was known to hang out in the DEA’s San Diego office and make time with secretaries. McDougal (and others) believe he gave agents damaging information on his competitors and, in return, was allowed to run his criminal enterprise.

 

Such records seem to meet the legal standard of information “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding” of government operations.

 

Sean R. O’Neill, chief of the Justice Department appeals staff, denied McDougal’s fee waiver request stating, “It appears that you seek the information to further your commercial interests.”

 

As far as I’m aware, the law doesn’t care whether a member of the public makes money from information that, by the way, taxpayers already paid to create in the first place.

Here’s an idea: How about the public gets to decide why it wants the information, and how it will be used. How about the government gets to pay attention only to the law and what it requires.

 

O’Neill told McDougal he had not shown how the records would “shed new light” on government operations, so he must pay $1,900 just to have 17 files searched with no promise that any documents would be released.

When the government gets to decide which information is in the public interest, and which information is not in the public interest, we have capped off an amazing come-from-ahead defeat, losing the Cold War we thought we had won.

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