Happy 46th Birthday, Freedom of Information Act

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law. 46 years later, FOIA has been instrumental in investigations (after a few tweaks; the original bill was full of roadblocks like a copying cost of $1 per page and $7 per searching hour). Here are just a few of the things learned through FOIA:

  • J. Edgar Hoover The Los Angeles Times gained access to a four-year investigation by J. Edgar Hoover into feminist groups across the country, which used informers to create dossiers of prominent women’s rights activists (which included cracks about their appearances and sexual orientation).
  • The exploding Ford Pinto. In 1978, The Department of Transportation recalled the exploding Pinto, now an infamous example of cost-benefit analysis in business school textbooks, after a lawsuit compelled the DOT to release information on the faulty safety standards of the Pinto’s gas tank.
  • Spiro Agnew pays up. Law students at the George Washington University forced the release of 2500 state and federal documents in a tax evasion case against disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1981. Agnew paid back $268,482 to the state of Maryland in kickbacks. According to the students’ professor, they picked the case because ”it looked like Agnew was going to step down as vice president and suffer virtually no penalties and get to keep all his money.”
  • John Yoo’s torture memos. In 2008, the ACLU successfully sued for the secret memos written by John Yoo in 2003 providing legal justification to torture prisoners to extract information. Yoo outlined presidential powers that found torture under “the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.”
  • The FBI spies on peaceful Muslims.The ACLU obtained documents revealing the FBI illegally spied on peaceful Muslim organizations. From 2004 to 2008, the FBI tracked everything from mosque locations to conversations about airline travel to the sale of dates after services.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for FOIA. Even when Johnson signed it, he had to be “dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony,” according to then press secretary Bill Moyers. “He hated…the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets.” Over the years, officials have resisted and restricted the act by citing national security concerns. True to the tradition, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a new version of his Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology Act (SECURE IT) which would create a new exemption in FOIA that allows the government to withhold any and all communication with cybersecurity centers. Considering the recent FOIA-provoked disclosure of secret surveillance letters routinely sent to tech companies by the FBI, Congress might want to rethink a blanket protection for all cybersecurity documents.