In “Parting the Veil of Government Secrecy,” IPSNet’s William Fisher tells the story of the Freedom of Information Act, 39 years old today. I can’t think of a more fitting birthday to celebrate on THIS July 4, 2005.
As today’s The Guardian notes, the Bush administration is rolling back open access, “classifying documents at the rate of 125 a minute and a cost of $7.2 bn (£4.07 bn) a year, sparking accusations across the political spectrum of excessive government secrecy in the name of anti-terrorism,” including:
More below, including some fascinating history and current legislation we need to support:
Pres. Dwight Eisenhower continued the need for secrecy during WWII into the post-war era, presiding over “leading to a battle between the journalists and the Defence Department.”
In 1956, the Democratic Party put the need for freedom of information in its national platform. The press fought for the cause, but Congress moved slowly “to guarantee a systematic release of information.” In 1966, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act passed.
Johnson signed the act on his Texas ranch, far from the nation’s capital, press conferences and television cameras. No one from the small band of legislators, lawyers and journalists who fought so hard for its enactment was on hand. The act had only one day to go before dying of presidential neglect in the form of a pocket veto.
This was hardly an auspicious beginning for a law that eventually spawned parallel ”sunshine laws” in all 50 states, and served as a model for many other democracies around the world. Only Sweden’s FOI law is older than the U.S. act.
Yet the original 1966 law was little more than a symbolic bow in the direction of government transparency. It did not contain a timeline for compliance with requests. It did not stipulate penalties for violation. No enforcement agency oversaw agency transgressions. And the law failed to set limits on requestor fees.
These shortcomings were addressed in the amendments of 1974 and 1976, which were motivated by Ralph Nader’s activism and public objections to government secrecy in light of the Watergate scandal.
Today, virtually everyone sees FOIA as an essential check on unlimited government power. (IPS)
IPS notes, as does today’s The Guardian article, that an “odd couple” of senators — ” Senator John Cornyn, a conservative Republican from Texas and Senator Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Maine” — are fighting to improve FOIA request response.
One of the bills passed the Senate on June 24, 2005. From Sen. Leahy’s June 24 press release:
More on Leahy/Cornyn’s work from the IPS article and the opinions of researcher advocates such as Norman Solomon:
One would create a commission to identify ways to reduce delays in processing FOIA requests. A second would establish a way for people to track their Freedom of Information Act requests on the Internet and would establish an ombudsman to mediate disputes between agencies and requesters.
Mark Dow, author of ”American Gulag”, a book describing the U.S. immigration prison system, has used FOIA widely and supports the ombudsman idea.
He told IPS, ”Having an ombudsman to resolve disputes sounds like a very good idea, since otherwise the system is inherently biased.”
His own experience with the law is mixed: ”Some of my FOIA requests to DOJ and INS have yielded important information; others have been rejected without explanation.”
On balance, however, he believes ”the FOIA system is an essential tool for monitoring our government employees.”
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that during the George W. Bush administration, there has been a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information Act requests — a 71 percent jump from 2002 to 2004; a 68 percent rise in requests processed during that period; and a 14 percent rise in the backlog.
The report, examining requests processed in 2004, says 92 percent resulted in ”responsive records” being provided in full. However, those seeking information often have to sue the government to get it.
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of the new book, ”War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”, is not surprised.
He told IPS, ”Secrecy is always part of the arsenal for domestic war propaganda. Lies for war come in many forms — and no form is more crucial than the blockading of information.”
”It’s no coincidence that the current White House efforts to severely limit the utility of FOIA requests in the most ‘sensitive’ cases is underway,” he said. ”Those who are eager to pursue war policies that can’t stand the light of day are eager to keep those policies in dark shadows.”