FOIA at 50: Still lighting things up

An editorial from The Dominion Post 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Ever feel like you’re the last one to know?

Well, it’s not just you. Matter of fact, despite our right to know, we don’t know the half of it.

The 4th of July marks the most significant date in American history, and rightfully so.

However, this date also marks another historic event.

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a relatively unheralded piece of legislation called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

At the signing ceremony, he remarked: “A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”

But for all the talk about one of our essential principles, we ’re often still in the dark about our government.

Agencies still reject nearly half of all FOIA requests and redact much of what they do release.

In 2015, the backlog of FOIA requests to federal government agencies numbered more than 102,000, after having soared to nearly 160,000 in 2014.

Those are simply the requests that have not been acted on or are being improperly denied.

Many legitimate requests fall victim to Exemption Five — the “withhold it because you want to” rule. That rule allows agencies to deny communications that might be too difficult to process or incriminating, on the grounds that they constitute a “draft” or an “interagency or intraagency communication.”

There are only nine federal FOIA exemptions, including for national security, personnel and medical reasons, and trade secrets.

Of course, these are appropriate reasons for not making information public, but many agencies still err on the side of needless secrecy. In 2014, federal agencies cited exemptions more than 550,000 times to deny requests.

Improbable delays, cavalier rejections of requests and outdated technology used to retrieve documents were hardly the only problems facing FOIA as it turned 50, either.

In June, President Obama signed off on a FOIA reform bill, that among other things bars use of Exemption Five for information older than 25 years.

However, this is the same Obama who has possibly done more to undermine FOIA responsiveness than any administration.

Some have referred to the FOIA Improvement Act as a shrewd effort by the president to take the credit, but not the responsibility —his term ends in six months.

Still, though FOIA’s golden anniversary was no cause for fireworks, information released under its authority often is.

Despite agencies’ reluctance to make FOIA a central part of their mission, this law continues to light up the darkest corners of government.

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