Freedom of Information Act: A Reappraisal

February 16, 1979

Report Outline
Conflicting Rights Under Law
Origin of Citizen Access Rights
Approach to Unsolved Problems
Special Focus

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.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Government Secrecy
Feb. 11, 2011  Government Secrecy
Oct. 23, 2009  Conspiracy Theories
Dec. 02, 2005  Government Secrecy
Jan. 16, 1987  National Security Council
Sep. 20, 1985  Protecting America's Secrets
Feb. 16, 1979  Freedom of Information Act: A Reappraisal
Aug. 18, 1971  Secrecy in Government
Aug. 18, 1971  Secrecy in Government
Feb. 07, 1968  Credibility Gaps and the Presidency
Aug. 07, 1957  Secrecy and Security
Dec. 21, 1955  Secrecy in Government
Feb. 23, 1955  Security Risks and the Public Safety
Jun. 24, 1953  Access to Official Information
Feb. 25, 1948  Protection of Official Secrets
Jan. 29, 1929  Secret Sessions of the Senate
Freedom of Information
Freedom of Speech and Press