by Harry Hammitt
Every so often a story comes along involving FOIA that serves to remind us
why the statute is so important in our democracy. Sometimes, with little or
no warning, a piece of information works its way out of the system that either
astonishes us because of its substantive quality or because we had come to
expect that the piece of information would never be made public short of an
That moment occurred again recently when website archivist Russ Kick was given
a CD-worth of photos of coffins being processed through Dover Air Force Base,
photos that many in the press thought would never come out solely because the
Defense Department said they just were not going to disclose them based on
a one-paragraph policy developed at the time of the Persian Gulf War. Fortunately,
Kick had the audacity to believe that one could actually request information
under FOIA and receive it back in return, and one of the most astounding side-bars
to this episode was that no one before Kick had apparently thought of requesting
No matter how tight the government’s restrictions on access to information
may be at any given time, in our democracy information that was not supposed
to become public has a way of seeking the sunshine. Kick’s experience
with FOIA shows that the statute still works. And the photos of prison abuse
remind us that when enough people on the inside have access to information
some of it is bound to leak to the outside. While the images are gruesome and
repulsive in many respects, disclosure of such information is part and parcel
of what makes our country free -- that in a free democratic society it
is up to the public to make its own judgments concerning government conduct,
an exercise that requires access to all forms of information, not just those
the government wants the public to see.
-- Excerpted from Access Reports. Hammitt, a VCOG director, lives in Lynchburg.
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