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History of the Freedom of Information Act

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.

  • 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);"

  • Recent 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.)

  • 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.

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