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FOIA at Forty

(AP, file)
Theoretically at least, the Freedom of Information Act is a journalist's best friend. Signed into law by Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago, the law requires that federal government agencies provide access to their records in response to the written request of a citizen. Johnson, as the Associated Press notes, was reticent to sign the law, fearing that it could lead to the disclosure of secrets that, if revealed, might mean harm to the country. (He even chose not to conduct a public signing that would draw attention to it.) The Johnson administration's unease was revealed in Johnson's signing statement, a portion of which was at one point changed from "democracy works best when the people know what their government is doing" to "Democracy works best when the people have all the info that the security of the nation will permit."

Accessing documents using a FOIA request can be a challenge. Officials argue that they need time to process the many requests that they receive, and to make sure that they do not share sensitive information with the public. They say that FOIA "is overused by prisoners and aliens to overtax the system. It is abused by lawyers to circumvent court discovery rules. It is employed by businesses to gain unfair advantage over competitors. It is exploited by journalists to invade personal privacy and endanger national security." But transparency advocates say that the government takes too long with requests and keeps classified information that should be in the public domain. Writes the AP: "Seeking records can be a hair-pulling experience, with requests often taking months or even years before paperwork - if any - is returned."

Officials have numerous strategies for dealing with an unwanted FOIA request, and most journalists are familiar with at least a few of them. A few years ago, I was working on a story for Washington City Paper about a DC governmental agency, and I submitted a FOIA request in an effort to find out as much as I could about the agency. After a significant delay, I received boxes of documents, most of which contained information that was obviously useless for my work. I had been "buried in paper," as they say, and was of course charged for every copy.

It could have been worse, of course. "Brian Martin of Denver, a private computer-security consultant, submitted two requests for records to the Homeland Security Department more than a year ago - and never heard back. Martin sought information about how much the government spends tracking software problems exploited by hackers and others," notes the AP. When he made a similar request of the Commerce Department, Martin was told he could have the information – so long as he paid more than $1,800 in copying and search fees.