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"Veil of Secrecy" was reported in collaboration in with U.S. News and World Report.

Free Speech Quiz

Filing Cabinets
3.17.06
Politics and Economy:
Freedom of Information Past and Present
More on This Story:
"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. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." -- James Madison

That statement, by the fourth President of the United States, opens A CITIZEN'S GUIDE ON USING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT AND THE PRIVACY ACT OF 1974. The guide has been published by mandate of Congress every year since 1977. The scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is surprising — see some results below.

THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
  • History: The Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966, was the first law that gave Americans the right to access the records of federal agencies. The legislation was the brainchild of California Congressman John Moss. Due to his zeal for making information public, Moss's own FBI file, recently obtained under FOIA, grew to two inches thick. In 1974, after the Watergate scandal the act was amended to force greater agency compliance. In 1991 the General Accounting Office reported over 1.9 million FOIA requests. In December 2003, USATODAY and the Associated Press reported that some FOIA requests have been pending since the 1980s.

  • Federal FOIA Web Sites: Recent revisions to the Freedom of Information Act mandate that every federal agency maintain a FOIA Web page. The information available gives a glimpse into the breadth of FOIA. On the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site, you can access a database of U.S. businesses with the worst health and safety records — they've all been sent official warnings. The National Security Agency's Web page includes quick information for those making common FOIA requests. The homepage states clearly that "the names of agency employees are confidential" and "NO RECORDS EXIST" on U.F.O.s.

    Most states also have freedom of information or "sunshine" laws. You can find out how to access state records by using our State Freedom of Information Map.

  • Changes: One of the crucial aspects of the Bush administration's stand on the FOIA will be interpretation of the standard on withholding information if there is a "sound legal basis" for doing so. This is an alteration from the previous test, instituted in 1993, which said FOIA applications should be complied with unless "disclosure would be harmful."

    In addition, under the Homeland Security Bill, Public Law 107-296, "critical infrastructure information" gathered by the new Homeland Security Department "shall be exempt from disclosure under section 552 of title 5, United States Code (commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act);"

    Find out what the rules of classification are in 2006.

  • Additional FOIA Cases:
    • Clinton EPA chief Carol Browner was ordered to restore files deleted from office computer.
    • In 2000, the Justice Department was ordered to pay $355,000 in legal fees in a case relating to the FBI crime lab. The department must also place the 53,000 pages in question available on its Web site.
    • In March 2002, the CIA refused a Freedom of Information Act request to release a 1917 recipe for invisible ink.
    • A new book by Johns Hopkins Professor Piero Gleijeses discloses new information, retrieved through FOIA, about U.S. involvement in Angola as early as 1975.
    • THE PALM BEACH POST lost its three-year bid for information on nuclear testing on a Boca Raton base in the 1950s. The government cited national security as the reason for denial.
    • Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests have been filed seeking information on the detainees housed at the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The Supreme Court will hear arguments related to these detentions in its current term. (Read more about civil liberties and national security and the USA Patriot Act.)
    • In December, 2003, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Connecticut and The District of Columbia filed Freedom of Information Act Requests as part of a challenge to the new clean air rules instituted under The Clear Skies Initiative. (Read more about Clear Skies.)
    • In July, 2003 a federal appeals court ordered Vice President Cheney to turn over information about the working of his energy committee in response to a FOIA suit filed by Judicial Watch. The Vice President has appealed the decision. (Read more about the case.)

    • The Gulf of Tonkin Controversy:
      Gulf of Tonkin incident has long been known as the catalyst that propelled the United States into the Vietnam War in 1964. Now, newly declassified documents from the National Security Agency challenge the events of that crucial incident. Read on to find out more about how history has come to light.

      In the summer of 1964, the USS Maddox was on a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, a body of water tucked between China's southern coast, China's Hainan Island, and the northern coast of Vietnam. At the time, the former French colony of Vietnam was divided into the communist North and the anti-communist South. The White House denied any involvement in the civil conflict.

      On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox reported that three North Vietnamese boats were attacking it; the Maddox fired back. The USS Ticonderoga sent aircraft to thwart the attacks and the Maddox left with minimal damage to the South Vietnamese waters.

      Two days later on August 4, 1964, the USS Maddox joined by the USS Turner Joy went north again for another reconnaissance mission. Again the Maddox reported an attack by the North Vietnamese.

      Less than a year after John F. Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson had been in the White House only a short time, and was facing an upcoming election. With the testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claiming the attacks on the Maddox were unprovoked, on August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave President Johnson authority "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom."

      This marked the beginning of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The second attack on the Maddox has long been disputed, with Johnson saying to then press secretary, Bill Moyers, a year after the attacks, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

      In December 2005, the National Security Agency declassified over 140 top-secret documents around the events of the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Included in the release is an article by Agency historian Robert J. Hanyok who argued that the controversial August 4th attack had never occurred.

      The National Security Archive, a non-governmental agency that archives declassified government documents, says "the parallels between the faulty intelligence on Tonkin Gulf and the manipulated intelligence used to justify the Iraq War make it all the more worthwhile to re-examine events of August 1964 in light in new evidence." Read more about the Gulf of Tonkin FOIA case

      "The Sunshine Gang" was made possible in part by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


  • FOIA Cases Past

    The Department of Transportation and other agencies are sued for information in the famous Ford Pinto gas tank case, 1978:  car recalled
    FDA sued for information on Red Dye #2 in 1971:  substance banned in 1977
    Veterans groups began using the FOIA to obtain records from the Department of Defense on defoliants used in Vietnam:  Agent Orange became a public concern
    FDA released results of studies on aspirin and Reye's Syndrome in children, 1982:  mandatory warning label
    CIA released papers showing they requested poison information on the Tanganykian crocodile gall bladder:  reported in FEDERAL TIMES, 4/9/79
    Law students at George Washington University forced release of 2,500 pages of federal and state documents:  Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned
    IRS released 40,000 page manual on auditing procedures, 1972:  accountants and tax preparers have new insight
    FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover instigated a four-year investigation of women's rights groups:  LA Times, NY Times and Washington Post break story, 2/6/77
    Sources: Sources: The Associated Press; THE NEW YORK TIMES; THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE; THE TIMES OF LONDON; THE GUARDIAN; NEWSDAY; THE NATIONAL REVIEW; THE WALL STREET JOURNAL; WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL; USATODAY; Scripps Howard News Service; THE JOURNAL OF BLACKS IN HIGHER EDUCATION; THE JOURNAL (Newcastle, England); "Freedom of Information Around the World" by David Banisar, Harvard University, March 2002; COMMITTEE REPORTS, 107th Congress, 2d Session, House Report 107-371, 107 H. Rpt. 371; PAST SECRETS, David Hendricks, 1979.

    "The Sunshine Gang" was made possible in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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