The First Congress charged executive departments of the federal government with ‘‘housekeeping,’’ or maintenance, of their own records. Neither the Constitution nor any comprehensive law required disclosure of government records until the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA). However, access under the APA was severely limited. Agencies could regulate access, and only ‘‘persons properly and directly concerned’’ with records were entitled to see them.
Dissatisfaction with secrecy in government, especially on the part of the press, grew in the 1950s. Bills were introduced in Congress as early as 1957, but none gained traction until 1963, when the APA came subject to overhaul. After back and forth between House and Senate, resolute dissent from federal agencies, and a threatened White House veto, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on July 4, 1966.
The FOIA, as since amended, mandates publication by executive authorities of materials such as rules and procedures and mandates disclosure of any executive branch record on request, regardless of the requester’s motive. However, the FOIA enumerates nine exemptions, including classified national security matters, trade secrets, agency memoranda, certain law enforcement records, matters of personal privacy, and records exempted by other statutes.
Though often touted as a journalist’s tool, the FOIA is used more widely by businesses and individuals. The FOIA has been litigated extensively, especially as to the scope of its exemptions. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the scope of the FOIA’s national security exemption has been fiercely contested.
RICHARD J. PELTZ
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Access to Government Operations Information; Classified Information; Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws; Media Access to Information; United Nations Subcommission on Freedom of Information and of the Press