FOIA at 50
By Editorial Board, Wash. Post, July 3, 2016
THE PRINCIPLE of holding government to account is at the bedrock of U.S. democracy, and information about government decisions is essential for that accountability. The Freedom of Information Act, although not something every citizen comes in contact with, remains a vital tool for keeping government open and honest. While not perfect — not every request results in disclosure of information or documents — it at least offers a law-based process for citizens to seek information from the powerful. Does a citizen in a place like China or Russia have such a chance to pull aside the curtains of secrecy with a simple letter? No.
With bipartisan backing, Congress recently approved the first update to the Freedom of Information Act since 2007, and President Obama signed the bill Thursday. It will not resolve many of the backlogs and frustrations, but it contains important improvements.
First signed into law 50 years ago this weekend by a reluctant President Lyndon Johnson, the FOIA has had a significant impact. Consider the examples compiled by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization that has championed the use of the law; they show that, among other things, the law has been used to expose waste and mismanagement, unmask decisions on national security, and highlight threats to food safety. Records from the Food and Drug Administration, obtained by Bloomberg News under the FOIA, revealed that a product labelled “parmesan cheese” had no parmesan at all.
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