As many know, yesterday was the 40th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act, a critical instrument for ordinary citizens and public-interest groups to get disclosure from the government.
Prior to July 4th, 1966, the US Government worked in relative secrecy. But since the FOIA, things are different. While certain secrets will never be known, the FOIA at least allows citizens to get some idea as to what the heck is going on in Washington. It’s an invaluable law.
Well worth reading is the interesting brief history of the FOIA at the National Security Archive.
Documents from the LBJ Library show that the normally gregarious President, who loved handing out pens at bill signings, refused even to hold a formal ceremony for the FOIA, personally removed strong openness language from the press statement, and only agreed to approve the bill after the Justice Department suggested the tactic that has become President Bush’s favorite – a signing statement that undercut the thrust of the law.
This back story behind Johnson’s grudging signature highlights some constants – the government’s resistance to outside scrutiny – and some surprising role reversals, featuring then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld as a FOIA champion and then-White House aide Bill Moyers as a FOIA opponent, at least for a time.
Then, on a slightly depressing note, we hear today from the CDT that “many federal agencies are still lagging in their efforts to comply with the law.” Link here.
It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that, as Mr. Lincoln so adeptly put it, ours is “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The FOIA is a critical part of this concept and the law as enumerated cannot be allowed to get watered down or circuited by agencies.