On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Act gave weight to a principle that is fundamental to any democracy: The right of the people to know what the government is doing. Forty-one years later, FOIA remains an essential tool used by the public, public advocacy groups (including EFF?s FLAG project), and news organizations to uncover information that would otherwise remain hidden from public view.
But a recent report (PDF) from the George Washington University?s National Security Archive and the Knight Foundation shows that FOIA is far from a perfect tool of transparency in government. The study found that requests for information often languish in bureaucratic limbo for years -- the oldest dates back to 1987! The National Security Archive actually had to use FOIA to find out how many FOIA requests were still pending.
Luckily, a new bill to reform FOIA is working its way through Congress, supported by a broad coalition of organizations that spans the political spectrum. The OPEN Government Act (S. 849)(PDF) brings much needed reform to FOIA and puts in place incentives for federal agencies to process FOIA requests in a timely fashion. The bill would create a tracking system for FOIA requests so that they don?t get lost in the bowels of federal agencies, as well as allowing requesters who prevail in FOIA litigation to recover reasonable attorney fees.
Meanwhile, EFF's FOIA lawsuits are making steady strides. A judge recently ordered the FBI to release records about its abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) to collect Americans' personal information. The first batch of documents will be released later this week, and we will post them on our website as soon as we can. There will also be a hearing in Washington, DC on July 26 in EFF?s FOIA case seeking orders, rules and guidelines issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the Administration?s warrantless surveillance program.