A Brief History
On July 4, 1966, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted, with an effective date one year later, July 4, 1967. In keeping with the wondrous and mysterious ways of Washington, DC, the FOIA was repealed the next day! Not to worry, a virtually identical FOIA was enacted on July 5, 1967, and was effective from July 4, 1967.
This goofy, confusing political posturing is exactly why the FOIA was needed. On the other hand, far from making government transparent as the FOIA was intended, self serving interpretations and vague wordage caused the 1974 Privacy Act to amend the FOIA in ways beneficial to the public. Of course, the bastions of individual freedom, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Anton Scalia (all executive branch operatives even back then) counseled President Ford against this increased clarity and Ford vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the veto, and the FOIA was amended.
Modification did not stop there, as the 1976 Sunshine Act allowed the government to withhold certain specified information relating to national defense, personal privacy, internal workings of government, financial institutions and criminal proceedings. (Should have called it the “Block the Sunshine Act!”)
Ronald Reagan made Executive Order 12356 in 1986 which grossly undermined the FOIA, allowing the government to keep much more information away from the public. In 1995, President Clinton un-did most of those restrictions, and released a wealth of previously secret information, especially about Cold War topics.
Other modifications concerning the way requests and fees were handled and allowing for electronic compliance with requests (instead of hard copies), and President George W. Bush restricted access to information about former presidents, which was in turn overturned by President Obama. In 2002 another bill was passed once again limiting access to information, especially by foreign entities. Not to leave things be, another modification, the Open Government Act of 2007 was passed, and in 2009 President Obama ordered that information could be retroactively classified as secret when requested.
The convoluted trail of “government openness” continued in 2010 when amendments were made to the FOIA as part of the Wall Street Reform Act in July and then repealed in September! Those amendments were to protect SEC investigations in progress. This repeal makes it harder to investigate Wall Street.
Governments all over the globe keep secrets from their own people, and the US is no different. The FOIA was supposed to at least partially change that, but it seems it keeps getting watered down. Even as this article is written, another bill with more modifications is before congress, supposedly to enhance public access to information.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should government business be secret, or should the people have a right to know what the feds are up to? Let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information on this topic, please see…
Brooke, Heather. Your Right to Know – Second Edition: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act. Pluto Press, 2006.