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Happy 54th Birthday FOIA! A Brief History Of The Act & Why It’s So Important

July 2, 2020
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Every year the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence overshadows a lesser known but equally important document that was also signed into law on the 4th of July, but in 1966. That document was the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA.

For the first time ever, the Freedom of Information Act provided citizens with unprecedented access to information about almost everything their tax dollars touched. But why was FOIA passed to begin with, and what were things like before FOIA?

How FOIA Began

The person responsible for the enactment of FOIA is late Democratic Congressman John E. Moss of California. Moss arrived in D.C. a small-time congressman in 1953 during the country’s second Red Scare. The era was marked by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s McCarthyism, Harry Truman’s loyalty program, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Americans were in a state of panic as fears of communism and foreign threats ran rampant. The loyalty program and House Un-American Activities Committee investigated individuals and organizations across the country that were thought to either be or said to employ Russian spies, communists, communist sympathizers, or any other kind of potential security threat. Truman’s loyalty program focused on government employees specifically. People investigated could be prosecuted, fired, or even publicly slandered to the point that after being fired they’d be effectively blackballed in their industry and unable to find another similar job. Investigation information was held in files that were possessed and kept secret by the FBI.

Investigations and accusations held personal weight with Moss. He was the victim of charges of communism during his 1949 campaign for state assembly and 1953 campaign for Congress, both of which didn’t stop his victories. These personal run-in’s cemented Moss’s crusade to actually get public information into the hands of the public.

An investigation into the discharge of almost 2,800 federal employees that was explained only as being due to “security reasons” is what ultimately sparked Moss’s movement. Moss had recently been appointed to the Government Operations Committee which had jurisdiction over government information practices. He used his position to confront the Civil Service Commission and formally requested the records that held the details behind the federal firings. His request was denied.

By this time the country as a whole was entering a time of information conflict. The attitude of “when in doubt, classify” was prevalent. Secrecy labels were slapped on seemingly innocent bits of data. Seemingly innocuous facts, like the amount of peanut butter consumed by the armed forces, were classified as secret because the government feared this information might enable an enemy to determine our military preparedness. A twenty-year-old report describing shark attacks on shipwrecked sailors was also classified as secret.

In 1954, President Eisenhower created the Office of Strategic Information, or OSI. Its main purpose was to keep the media from disclosing anything that might help enemies of the U.S, particularly the Soviet Union. It quickly became controversial. Journalists and news organizations became increasingly frustrated and concerned as OSI forced the media to pass security regulations and to only publish what would be considered “constructive contributions” to defense and national security.

Moss was quickly on the case. The new Special Subcommittee for Government Information was created on June 9th, 1955, marking the beginning of what would become a long, 11 year battle primarily between Moss’s committee fighting for the right to information and the government (especially the executive branch) not wanting to give information away. The fight culminated in 1965 when a key ally came to Moss. Newly elected Republican congressman Donald Rumsfield was credited with allegedly convincing Minority Leader Gerald Ford and the House Republican Policy Committee to support FOIA. Republican support was new to Moss’s long fight for FOIA, and the tides began to turn.

Soon after President Lyndon B. Johnson was elected president and was said to not be a fan of the bill. He didn’t veto it, but he did make dramatic exemptions.

  1.  Information which could damage national defense or foreign policy interests of the U.S.
  2. Inter-agency or intra-agency deliberations which might inhibit government decision-making
  3. Personal files of individuals which should be kept private
  4. Information which could impair law enforcement actions of federal agencies, including the names of FBI informants
  5. Trade secrets and other traditionally confidential business information
  6. Any other information which the president or his deputies deemed necessary to [be] kept secret because such action was “in the public interest.”

All of Johnson’s conditions were agreed to and FOIA was signed into law on July 4th, 1966. Interestingly enough, according to the president’s press secretary at the time, Bill Moyers, “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony.” Some made comments that the allowing of these exceptions crippled Moss’s bill, but most hold that the law is an effective and incredibly important part of any transparent, just society.

Outside of Sweden and Finland, FOIA was the first open government bill passed into law in the world. Since then, at least 117 countries have established FOI laws of their own. The work needed to maintain and uphold FOIA is never-ending, and the law has rarely changed in its 54 years. President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 into law, mandating a 25-year sunset for the “wildly misused” FOIA exemption (b)(5). The exemption didn’t hold a time limit and was often called the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. Through its use the CIA recently successfully hid a draft history of its 53-year-old Bay of Pigs invasion by invoking an overly-broad interpretation of the exemption.

Here at NextRequest we are in constant pursuit of government transparency. Our records request software is used by government agencies throughout the country to manage FOIA records in adherence to the Freedom of Information Act. Learn more about us here.

Special thanks to Nate Jones and Michael R. Lemov, the authors of John Moss and the Roots of the Freedom of Information Act: Worldwide Implications, written April 17, 2018.