US Congress wants to provide more access to up-to-now secret records

The U.S. Congress is going to expand the country's main law safeguarding access to records, increasing penalties for noncompliance and making government contractors subject to the law.

The White House is not saying whether the president will sign off on the changes to the Freedom of Information Act once the House of Representatives acts on it Tuesday. With a congressional recess starting at the end of the week, that raises the possibility that the act's first makeover in a decade could become law without his signature. The Senate passed the bill last week.

The legislation reverses an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks instructing agencies to lean against releasing information if there was any uncertainty about how it would affect national security.

Supporting changes in the law were dozens of media outlets, including The Associated Press.

The bill restores a standard that commits government agencies to releasing requested information unless there is a finding that such disclosure could do harm.

Agencies would be required to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the changes, agencies would have to explain any redaction by citing the specific exemption under which the blacked-out information qualifies. Nonproprietary information held by government contractors also would be subject to the law.

The legislation also creates a system for the media and public to track the status of their requests under the act. It establishes a hotline service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has been working with the Justice Department on the legislation and has said he expects the president to sign it.

But as the House vote loomed Tuesday, the White House was not committing the president to any such action.

Asked whether Bush would sign, veto or ignore the bill, White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded only that the legislation "is certainly an improvement" over previous versions.

There may be a key reason for the non-commitment: Congress is about to recess - but not adjourn - for the year. Under the Constitution, legislation passed by a Congress that is technically in session automatically becomes law if not signed by the president within 10 days. This would allow the measure to take effect without the president having to affirm it.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova