WASHINGTON – The Freedom of Information Act passed 40 years ago today amid apprehension, and the law is still under debate. President Lyndon Johnson had deep reservations when he signed the law that opened the government’s filing cabinets to its citizens, worrying that it might force the disclosure of damaging national secrets, newly disclosed records show.
Forty years later, the FOIA continues to create tension between the government and citizens, corporations, researchers and journalists. The law’s staunchest advocates believe its principles are imperiled, threatened by what they describe as the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy and concerns about revealing strategies to terrorists.
“This is the worst of times for the Freedom of Information Act in many ways,” said Paul K. McMasters of the First Amendment Center, which studies free speech, press and religion. McMasters cited large backlogs of unresolved citizen requests for records, and new Bush administration strategies to withhold documents.
When he signed the law on July 4, 1966, Johnson was so uneasy about the new legislation he refused to conduct a public signing ceremony that would draw attention to it. He also submitted a signing statement that some researchers believe was intended to undercut the bill’s purpose of forcing government to disclose records except in narrow cases.
Draft language from Johnson’s statement arguing that “democracy works best when the people know what their government is doing,” was changed with a handwritten scrawl to read: “Democracy works best when the people have all the info that the security of the nation will permit.”
This sentence was eliminated entirely with the same handwritten markings: “Government officials should not be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.” Another scratched sentence said the decisions, policies and mistakes of public officials “are always subjected to the scrutiny and judgment of the people.”
The 1966 papers were discovered in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The archive’s director, Thomas Blanton, said it was unclear from the documents whether Johnson personally edited his statement or directed his press secretary, Bill Moyers, to make changes.
Tension over the law continues. Seeking records can be a hair-pulling experience, with requests often taking months or even years before paperwork – if any – is returned, and the government is under orders to improve its system.
But when President Bush instructed agencies to review their information programs, many of them – including the CIA and Pentagon – boasted about their performance. The Justice Department said its handling of FOIA requests for records was working “exceptionally well,” although officials acknowledged there was “room for improvement.”