It's been 40 years since passage of the mother of all information access lawsthe U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Given that March 11 marked the start of America's third annual Sunshine Week a national effort to cast light onto the growing recesses of government secrecyU.S. News is again providing links so its readers can file requests for federal records under the FOIA and its sister statute, the Privacy Act. Although the government can be slow in getting back to you, the request process itself is pretty straightforward.
Since the original U.S. act in 1966, 68 countries have passed freedom of information laws. But as we noted last year, in too many countries the presumption remains that all records are secret until officials deem otherwise. In contrast, the U.S. legislation, as generally interpreted, presumes that all government records should be publicunless officials can show very good reasons to exempt them, such as for protecting national security or law enforcement sources. If citizens are not satisfied, they can take the government to court and ask a judge to decide.
Here's an online guide to getting what the government's got:
Often the records can be obtained by simply asking for them, but since 9/11, federal agencies have grown increasingly stubborn about what they release. A just-released survey by the National Security Archive found that only 1 in 5 federal agencies meets congressionally mandated requirements for online information access. There's hope, though: A new bill is making its way through the House of Representatives, with bipartisan backing, that would strengthen the FOIA, one of a host of open government measures being looked at by the new Congress.
Last year, I interviewed secrecy watchdog Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who warned that the FOIA and open government are under attack. I checked back with Aftergood this week and found him of two minds these days.
"We've continued to pay a high price for secrecy in bad government decision makingon Iraq, on detention policy, on interrogation, on energy, and more," he says. "I think a lot of long-term damage has been donein foreign policy, in fiscal policyand we're going to be paying for many years for the choices we've made or the choices that have been made for us."
At the same time, Aftergood sees signs of hope.
"The 2006 election seems to have signaled an end of public tolerance for secret government and a return to more probing oversight and disclosure," he adds. "We've forgotten that this used to be the norm."
The price is indeed steep, both within and outside the government. Intelligence agencies, for one glaring example, still can't talk to each other and are scared to death of opening themselves up to the public. This is a recipe for more 9/11 and Iraq intel failures. How bad is it? I recall sitting next to an intelligence veteran last year who confided he'd seen my published stories distributed in the intelligence communitymarked Secret. As Aftergood told me, "We're crippling ourselves with indiscriminate secrecy. It just makes no sense."