Happy Birthday: Freedom of Information Act Is 41 Today

July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Its purpose was to ensure the public’s right to access information from the federal government. For the first time, the government would bear the burden for certifying why requested information should not be released, and any refusal to release information could be challenged in court.

The FOIA was nearly stillborn as Johnson was bitterly opposed to the legislation. His press secretary, Bill Moyers, described LBJ as having to be:

“…dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.”

In 41 years, the presidential impression of the FOIA has actually declined. the Bush administration has been cited as the most secretive in history. Moyers enumerates many examples in a speech he gave before the Society of Professional Journalists. BushCo intelligence agencies have also been busy re-classifying tens of thousands of documents that were previously available for years.

With regard to actual compliance, Bush and his Secret Society associates have assembled a disgraceful record of non-performance. The Knight Open Government Survey published by the National Security Archive of George Washington University, finds systematic failures in tracking, processing, and reporting on FOIA requests. In January 2007, the Archive itself filed FOIA requests with the 87 leading federal agencies to identify the ten oldest pending requests in each agency. Fifty seven of the agencies responded. Out of more than 500 pending requests, only twenty were still within the 20 day period agencies have to respond. All ten of the State Department’s oldest were more than 15 years old. The survey also found that agencies misrepresented their FOIA backlogs to Congress as well as discrepancies between this year’s audit and previous audits.

Any sense of surprise at this administration’s obsession with obfuscation and deceit should have worn off long ago. There are just too many examples to list. But on this holiday celebrating freedom, perhaps the best example occurred just a couple of days ago when Bush issued his payoff (commutation) to Scooter Libby. This is another transparent effort by the crime bosses in the White House to buy the silence of a compromised accomplice. Despite this brazen abuse of executive authority, the Congress still seems incapable of demanding accountability:

“Bipartisan Congressional efforts to solve some of the problems exposed in the Archive’s “ten oldest” audits have stalled in the Senate, with Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona personally holding S. 849 from an up-or-down vote. The bill would impose penalties for agency delay, mandate accurate and timely tracking and reporting of FOIA requests…”

Sometimes it only takes one corrupted soul to throw a roadblock in front of a whole nation, but the result is the same.

As we celebrate that other anniversary that everybody seems to be talking about today, we should take a moment to recognize this 41st birthday of legislation that was enacted in the best spirit of this country’s principles. James Madison seems prescient in his statement back in 1822:

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Happy 41st, Freedom of Information Act.
See my salute to FOIA’s 40th.