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The Freedom of Information Act

History

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President Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) signed the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. The law was a major step in "shining sun" on the workings of government; it requires that federal agencies provide access to records when requested by a citizen in writing.

Even though Johnson reportedly was uneasy, he quietly signed it on 4 July (not a public event). However, he attached a signing statement intended to limit the scope of the bill. (cite)
    Draft language from Johnson's statement arguing that "democracy works best when the people know what their government is doing," was changed with a handwritten scrawl to read: "Democracy works best when the people have all the info that the security of the nation will permit."

    This sentence was eliminated entirely with the same handwritten markings: "Government officials should not be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest." Another scratched sentence said the decisions, policies and mistakes of public officials "are always subjected to the scrutiny and judgment of the people."

The bill had three weaknesses: agencies had no minimum time to respond, there were no penalties if an agency failed to comply with the request, and there were no limits set on how much an agency could charge. Watergate provided impetus for amendments in 1974 and 1976. President Clinton signed additional changes in 1996.

Today agencies are supposed to respond in 20 working days. However, agencies don't always comply. An editorial by Jimmy Carter notes that "[a]ccording to the National Security Archives 2003 report, median response times may be as long as 905 working days at the Department of Agriculture and 1,113 working days at the Environmental Protection Agency."

Adding to the maze that is federal information, Carter writes that "the U.S. government uses at least 50 designations to restrict unclassified information and created 81 percent more "secrets" in 2005 than in 2000."

Next: 1996 Amendments, Clinton Statement

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