Happy birthday, Freedom of Information Act!

While the adoption of the Declaration of Independence is the most important anniversary that the US celebrates on July 4th, this date is also the anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. President Johnson signed the FOIA on July 4, 1966 – although he apparently wasn’t happy about it, and refused to hold a signing ceremony.

The National Security Archive -- which is not a government agency, but a nonprofit based at the George Washington University (where I work) -- looked back at the history of FOIA on its 40th anniversary in 2006, and reported:

Documents from the LBJ Library show that the normally gregarious President, who loved handing out pens at bill signings, refused even to hold a formal ceremony for the FOIA, personally removed strong openness language from the press statement, and only agreed to approve the bill after the Justice Department suggested the tactic that has become President Bush’s favorite – a signing statement that undercut the thrust of the law.

The history explains that the July 4th signing date was the cutoff for President Johnson to sign the bill – which leaves open the possibility that he didn’t intentionally sign it on Independence Day. But it seems fitting that 190 years after the Declaration of Independence enshrined the idea of our country’s government “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the US adopted a law that helps the governed hold the federal government accountable.  The Freedom of Information Act allows any person to obtain access to federal agency records, with some specific exceptions.

Organizations, journalists, and individuals who file FOIA requests are often frustrated by delays and denials, but thousands of filers do get the information they ask for every year. According to FOIA.gov, in FY 2011, agencies received 644,165 FOIA requests and released the requested records in full or in part for 93% of requests. The backlog of FOIA requests, while still substantial, has declined since 2008. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press describes some of the ways journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to benefit the public:

FOIA has been used to reveal to the public vital information on health and safety.

Five days after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, both the mayor of New York City and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator had declared the area a low risk for environmental dangers. But the EPA’s responses to FOIA requests from a New York Daily News reporter helped him demonstrate, months after the collapse, that “Ground Zero” was contaminated with asbestos and other chemicals. Manhattan residents, rescue workers and others were victims of a “web of environmental deception,” the Daily News reported.

In 2003, the Dayton Daily News reported the results of dozens of FOIA requests to the Peace Corps on the risks corps volunteers, especially women, have faced abroad from violence, accidents, disease and suicide. The responses, in tandem with the newspaper’s reporting through interviews and travels, showed that the agency’s own statistics masked the dangers to which the volunteers were exposed.

The newspaper had previously used FOIA to show that women in the U.S. military endured cavalier responses to rape charges brought against enlisted men and officers, many of whom had been accused before. It also used FOIA to obtain Occupational Safety and Health Administration databases and identify the most dangerous work places in the country.

Other reporters have used FOIA to identify wasteful government spending.

Several reports have spotlighted the mismanagement of funds intended for those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast region in 2005. Eventually, as audits and investigations were made public, there were reports of debit cards issued as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency cash assistance program being distributed to individuals who submitted falsified information. Later, reports surfaced that more than 10,000 unused trailer homes ordered by FEMA and intended for those displaced by the storms were sitting in Arkansas fields. More recently, CNN found that 121 truckloads of basic household goods, including dishes and linens, that were donated or purchased with government funds were being re-sold to federal and state agencies, rather than distributed to individuals still in need of aid.

A 2007 Washington Post article used FOIA to find that only $40 million of $854 million in cash and oil intended to be sold to raise money for the hurricane victims had actually been collected and put to use. The documents received by the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also showed the U.S. declined the free use of cruise ships from Greece and instead later paid Carnival Cruise Lines $249 million to use its ships for hotels or hospitals — and then let those ships sit empty for several weeks.

FOIA has been used for many other purposes, uncovering important information about the 1950s-era Rosenberg spy trials; FBI harassment of civil rights leaders; surveillance of authors, scientists and composers; international smuggling operations; environmental impact studies; the salaries of public employees; and sanitary conditions in food processing plants.

RCFP encourages journalists to try to file FOIA requests long before they need the information and to be persistent about following up with agencies and appealing denials, noting, "Despite Congress’ intent, records are not always released by agencies within the 20-day time frame, and often are withheld, sometimes improperly, under one of the law’s exemptions." The Obama Administration has been working to address these issues. Immediately after taking office, President Obama issued a Memorandum on FOIA, stating:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.  The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.

In assessing the government's responsiveness to the administration's openness directive last year, OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott commented, "We are not as yet at the level of ‘unprecedented transparency’ the Obama Administration promises, but we are beginning to see signs that at least some of the Administration’s openness efforts are paying off."

So, happy birthday, Freedom of Information Act! We hope your legacy will only improve with time.

More like this

While we’re on vacation, we’re re-posting content from earlier in the year. This post was originally published on July 4, 2012. By Liz Borkowski While the adoption of the Declaration of Independence is the most important anniversary that the US celebrates on July 4th, this date is also the…
Advocates for government transparency, including journalists and watchdog groups, were pleased to witness President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act. He did so on June 30 without fanfare. After it was signed into law, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) commented: “The…
This time next year, the "Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act" will be in effect.  The new law, which amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), was signed into law by President Bush on December 31, 2007 and becomes effective in one year.  The bill, sponsored…
cross-posted from OMBWatch Despite the Obama Administration's consistent theme of creating a new, more open government, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has yet to prove it will comply with the Administration's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies.  In its response to a 2008…

Long live the FOIA! And may agencies, including those that I often write about, recognize that FOIA is not a law the prohibits you from disclosing documents---as in "you're going to need to file a FOIA request for that"---but one that frees you to open your files and share the contents. I hope for the day when well-meaning government officials get away from saying "pst...pst...you should file a foia Celeste and ask for this document," and simply make it available at an on-line library. That's the spirit and the letter of FOIA.