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MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Giving citizens the facts is worth making a mess

No doubt about it: Freedom of information is messy.

We have a little sympathy, but not a lot, for those who had to search through old, random boxes in order to fulfill the government's end of an agreement with The Associated Press.

During last year's election campaign, the AP filed federal and state lawsuits that uncovered records of President Bush's service in the Texas National Guard about 30 years ago. But the information did not come easy.

Guard officials swore under oath that they had released everything. Weeks later, two retired Army officers searched again and found 31 more pages. This experience did not conclusively answer all questions about the president's military service. But it did show clearly that if you want sensitive information from public servants, you often must spend time and money.

Listen to how Lt. Col. John Stanford, a Guard spokesman, defended the delay: "These boxes are full of dirt and rat ... (excrement) and dead bugs."

This is just one example of the creative excuses and plain stubbornness confronting journalists and citizens seeking public information. Bush administration officials admit being more secretive than earlier administrations, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. They say they're protecting privacy and national security.

But we suspect they're more concerned about messes — not literal messes like rodent waste, but the kind of embarrassment and complications that people in power can experience when they lose control of facts.

Investigative reporting is sometimes called muckraking because it can make a mess for government officials. But it is one of the best ways for the people to learn what's wrong and fix it.

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