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NOW with Bill Moyers

Moyers on the Freedom of Information Act

In the interest of full disclosure you should know that the "Freedom of Information Act" was passed when Lyndon Johnson was President and I was his Press Secretary. He signed it on July 4, 1966; signed it with language that was almost lyrical; signed it, he said, "With a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people's right to know is cherished and guarded."

Well, yes, but what few people knew at the time is that LBJ had 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; hated them challenging the official view of reality. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House. Only the courage and political skill of a Congressman named John Moss got the bill passed at all, and that was after a twelve-year battle against his elders in Congress who blinked every time the sun shined in the dark corridors of power. They managed to cripple the bill Moss had drafted. And even then, only some last-minute calls to LBJ from a handful of newspaper editors overcame the President's reluctance; he signed "the damned thing," as he called it (only I'm paraphrasing, out of respect for PBS standards); he signed it, and then went out to claim credit for it.

It's always a fight, to find out what the government doesn't want us to know. It's a fight we're once again losing. Not only has George W. Bush eviscerated the Presidential Records Act and FOIA, he has clamped a lid on public access across the board. It's not just historians and journalists he wants locked out; it's Congress... and it's you, the public and your representatives.

We're told it's all about national security, but that's not so. Keeping us from finding out about the possibility of accidents at chemical plants is not about national security; it's about covering up an industry's indiscretions. Locking up the secrets of those meetings with energy executives is not about national security; it's about hiding the confidential memorandum sent to the White House by Exxon Mobil showing the influence of oil companies on the administration's policy on global warming. We only learned about that memo this week, by the way, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. May it rest in peace.