The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted to give citizens and the media access to government documents that are intended for public record. It posits that “any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information except to the extent the records are protected from disclosure by any of nine exemptions contained in the law or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions” (foia.state.gov). According to Hill (2011), prior to the FOIA making government information available to the public, the government regulated what information would be made available to the public and what would be withheld. This approach to keeping the public informed came to a head at the end of the Cold War when it was discovered that the level of secrecy surrounding government information was withheld from the public, deeming it unlawful.
At that juncture, the FOIA was first proposed by Congressman John Moss in 1955, as a response to the secrecy surrounding the Cold War (eff.org) and the critical need for transparency within the government. FOIA was signed into law in 1966 by then President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1974, the FOIA was amended after the Watergate scandal of the Nixon presidency made it unlawful to keep certain information from the public.
Although the FOIA had become law, there continued to be pushback from government officials who believed that it would put the nation at risk if its most top secret information was made public. During President Gerald Ford’s tenure, his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, convinced Ford to veto any and all amendments to the FOIA (eff.org). President Ford agreed and vetoed the bill on the premise that it left the United States vulnerable to being exposed of its most private government information. The veto did not stick as the house and senate overrode the measure.
The FOIA continued to follow a trajectory of amendments to refine and update the law with nearly each sitting president. President Ronald Reagan created and issued an Executive Order 12356 (eff.org) making it far easier than ever before to withhold sensitive government information from the public. During President Bill Clinton’s presidency, he relaxed some of the provisions of the FOIA that President Reagan had enacted in order to release important documentation from the Cold War for historical and archival purposes (eff.org). In order to justify this action, President Clinton signed into law in 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments. The rationale was that the newest technological innovations would make access of government information more transparent and would also enable documentation be put into electronic format.
Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the FOIA saw more amendments through two different acts. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there was a call for heightened security nationwide. President Bush issued Executive Order 13233 which limited access to information regarding former presidential administrations. Later in 2007, President Bush signed into law the OPEN Government Act of 2007 which granted news media and journalists access to government information (eff.org). The Bush administration received much criticism for the implementation of this Act and has been lauded as the most secretive administration in government history.
President Obama entered into office in 2009 with the vow that his administration would be transparent and moved to repeal part of previous amendments to the FOIA, making it easier for government information to be accessed and distributed. However, the Obama administration has failed to make good on its promises.
For all the many different amendments and changes to the FOIA since it was first proposed in 1955, it has served a limited purpose at best to uphold its original intention of making private government information more transparent. It is safe to assume that the government has never been nor will it ever fully be transparent for a number of reasons. The national security risks it would pose coupled with the need to keep government corruption hidden from the public are just but two very different reasons why transparency will never be fully realized.
- Hill, C. A. (2011). Freedom of information act – A primer. Journal of Tax Practice & Procedure, 13(3), 35-48.
- History of FOIA. (2012). Retrieved July 17, 2016, from https://www.eff.org/issues/transparency/history-of-foia
- The Freedom of Information Act. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2016, from https://foia.state.gov/Learn/FOIA.aspx