Conflicting Rights Under Law
Impact of FOIA on Government Secrecy
Of all the “rights” Americans enjoy, perhaps the most difficult to define or legislate is “the right to know.” The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signed into law in 1966, was designed to make federal agencies disclose more information to the public. Since its enactment, tens of thousands of previously secret files have been opened to citizen view. The statute has helped shed light on such diverse subjects as the CIA's mind control experiments and the espionage conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But despite its use in uncovering cases of possible wrongdoing by public officials, many believe that the Freedom of Information Act is still a long way from accomplishing its goal of ending government behind closed doors.
Access to information is limited by the very nature of the government's data-gathering network. The growth of the federal bureaucracy, the proliferation of agencies, and the increasing volume of paperwork all pose formidible barriers to compliance with the law. The sheer number of requests for information — estimates put the figure at around 150,000 a year since 1975 — makes prompt response difficult.
The Freedom of Information Act states that all records in the possession of the executive branch of the federal government must be provided to anyone on request, unless they are specifically exempted from disclosure by the law. There are nine categories of information that are exempted from public disclosure. But according to Martin Michaelson, a Washington, D.C., public interest lawyer, the exemptions are “broad enough to protect massive amounts of secrets.” Some agencies, particularly those involved in national security, intelligence and law enforcement, routinely deny citizens access to their files; others that do respond to requests often deliver incomplete or heavily censored data.