The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA as it is commonly known, became the law of the land in 1966 in order to make it easier for the American people to get access to documents, notes and other relevant information about how the federal government wields its considerable power.
It is a critical element to freedom of the press and journalists accessing information. It is a law that gives citizens the right to access information from the federal government and is often described as a law that helps keep citizens in the know about what the Federal government is up to. In fact, many investigations would not be possible without FOIA.
The premise of FOIA is that people have the right to know about the affairs of government without government determination on what they think expedient for citizens to know or not know. It allows for oversight over the activities of government and serves to reduce government corruption. The Freedom of Information Act empowers citizen control over their government, but far too often the government can be arbitrary in withholding information when responding to FOIA requests.
As I can personally attest to when William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and author of the new book Why Wall Street Matters , filed FOIA requests for my SEC testimony, the SEC refused to release any of the 1,000+ pages of evidence I had voluntarily provided to them, saying they were “confidential” and “trade secrets,” even though some of the pages showing the fraudulent representations and other documents which were given to the purchasers of mortgage-backed securities were printed off the internet.
So when a bill was introduced in Congress in 2014 to simplify FOIA and restrict the government’s ability to withhold information in responding to FOIA requests, it was widely supported by the public and enthusiastically embraced by Congress. The bill was unanimously approved by the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar bill. But then the large bank lobby became heavily involved in blocking the bill, and it was killed without ever being brought up for a final vote in the House.
Recently it has come to light, ironically through FOIA requests, that the Obama administration, in concert with the banks, also lobbied very hard to kill the popular bill in 2014.
Tyler Durden posted in Zero Hedge about documents obtained through the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s lawsuit against the Justice Department which reveal that the Justice Department and the Obama administration strenuously objected to both House and Senate members about nearly all aspects of the bill.
But there was apparently significant opposition to the part of the bill containing limitations on information which could be withheld by the government. “An agency may not withhold information under this subsection unless such agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would cause specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by an exemption [in the FOIA], or if disclosure is prohibited by law.”
According to Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Executive Director, Trevor Timm, “Multiple investigations have shown that the Obama administration has been the most secretive ever when it comes to FOIA. Requests can often take years to be fulfilled if at all, and the only way to get results is to sue like we were forced to. (We did not receive any documents for over a year from our first requests, and only received these documents after filing a lawsuit).”
The continuing government latitude in determining what information to release under FOIA is unacceptable. FOIA’s role is to allow for oversight and the people’s right to know. It is a much-needed check against government corruption and empowers citizen control over their government.
Mr. Timm asks and I acknowledge that Congress needs to amend FOIA ”and send it to the president’s desk with the same message they did fifty years ago when the Johnson administration opposed it, yet was forced to sign it anyway: transparency is vital to democracy.”