Alibi V.13 No.27 • July 1-7, 2004 


Suspicious Minds

A Brief History of the Freedom of Information Act

Farsighted as they were, our forefathers missed a few key rights when they laid out the plan for our republic. Freedom from slavery leaps to mind, but less obvious is the right to examine some, if not all, of the innards of our government. It's so easy to overlook this "right to know," in fact, that it did not even emerge as a concept in the United States until after World War II.

Public awareness began to evolve around 1946, when Congress initiated a policy of secrecy with the Administrative Procedure Act, which gave government agencies the right to withhold information "in the public interest." Given the choice, most agencies preferred to leave the populace uninformed in those early days of the Cold War.

Eisenhower kept the ball rolling in the '50s with his creation of the Office of Strategic Information (OSI). The mission of OSI was to cozy up with corporations to prevent the leaking of sensitive but unclassified information, but it had the ancillary effect of sealing off the government from the press. In response, media heads quickly joined forces to form the Freedom of Information (FOI) Committee. They soon found a champion for their cause in Rep. John E. Moss of California. Moss headed the Special Subcommittee on Government Information in 1955, which found that administrative hush-hush had reached an intolerable level.

Growing efforts to pry open the doors of the government finally came to fruition in 1966, after JFK's notoriously closed-door presidency. Public outcry had reached such a pitch by that time that President Johnson had little choice but to sign the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on July Fourth. (He still managed to drag his heels, though; he dodged the press cycle by signing it late at night on his Texas ranch.)

Since 1966, FOIA has varied in strength depending on the compliance of each administration. Nixon's, naturally, was a low point, though his stonewalling led to the strengthening of FOIA (a weak bill initially) under Gerald Ford. In the '80s, Reagan attempted to scale it back, complaining that FOIA had become too expensive—an ironic point, considering that he spent more on Pentagon marching bands at the time.

Presidential compliance reached its zenith under Clinton, who issued a memo declaring his commitment to "enhancing [FOIA's] effectiveness in my administration." Attorney General Janet Reno further asserted a "presumption of disclosure" in matters of FOIA. Their words became action in 1996, when Clinton approved the expansion of FOIA rights to the Net, requiring agencies to post the most frequently requested information online. (Yet despite all the FOIA flag waving, his administration's openness to the press proved less than exemplary in the end.)

Long before the U.S. even began its slow and convoluted development of Freedom of Information laws, Scandinavians already had them firmly in place. Sweden—that utopia of blondes and social welfare—was the first to guarantee government transparency in 1766, and the Finns made it part of their constitution of 1919. The rest of the western world, however, lagged behind the U.S., and it wasn't until the '90s that FOI laws spread to Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Today, the U.S. FOIA tops the list of frequently-used access laws, with more than 2 million requests logged in 2000. Strangely, the majority of these requests came from corporations, many of them seeking a leg up over competitors. For all agencies, business interests accounted for a full 40 percent of FOIA requests, while journalists (the supposed beneficiary of such laws) clocked in at around 5 percent. This put journalists well below lawyers (25 percent), unaffiliated individuals (16 percent), and nonprofits (8 percent), not to mention foreigners, who are permitted to submit requests.