Opinion » Columnists
Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Trashing Freedom of Information Acts: No Freedom and No Information, Just Acts

By John Fleming, author of World Power

Tempus omnia revelat. —Roman proverb
Les absents ont toujours tort .—French proverb

Every now and then in the U.S. a crazed man will force his way into a broadcast studio and demand that his message be read live on television. The media and most Americans think of him as a lunatic, and indeed there are better methods of disseminating your opinion, but overlooked is the irony that because of corporate censorship of the media, holding a broadcaster at gunpoint may be the only means of gaining a large audience.

Trying to acquire information from the national security state reminds me of that. You need power to begin with to wrest from those with power secrets that they would prefer to remain unknown to the public. The freedom of information laws foster the illusion of open government without actually promoting such government. Thus about 2005, some 40 years after the first freedom of information law was passed under President Johnson in 1966, it was publicly revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying, without court warrants, on Americans for many years; the means used included wiretapping, satellite surveillance and central monitoring of Internet and phone use with the connivance of the telephone company. And the knowledge of such spying came not from a Freedom of Information request but from a whistle blower employed in government.

The first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 was based on the people’s right to know, yet was restricted by nine specific exemptions, as given in Title 5 of the United States code; a FOIA request could be denied or “quashed” if it involved (1) national security; (2) mere government employment; (3) statutory matters; (4) trade secrets and financial information; (5) inter-agency or intra-agency correspondence not of material interest to a person; (6) personal information, the release of which would be an invasion of privacy; (7) information collected to enforce the law; (8) government regulation of a financial institution; and (9) finally, geological and geophysical information. Number one is immediately problematic in that “national security,” though given a detailed definition by the law (a sort of word version of a cat chasing its tail, so abstract and recondite is it), is subject to interpretation and vague enough to rubberstamp the abuse of the rights of “subversives,” who would have no recourse in seeking government spying on themselves were circular definition to set in. They are subversive because they threaten national security, and vice-versa.

The rest, with only the exception of the last (number nine), are also questionable as far as impartial administration, since they are subject to the same vagueness, self-serving interpretation and petitio principi. Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Juvenal). It seems that the more irrational are the administrators of the law, the more irrational will be the outcome of FOIA legislation. Also, one must love the tender solicitousness shown to corporate profit by numbers four and eight, and one should appreciate the irony of number six, since a law for the ostensible protection of privacy actually shields mass invasion of privacy in the form of the depredations committed by the NSA!

In 1974 Congress overrode a veto by President Ford and passed amendments to the FOIA. The legislation supposedly gave a person the right to see records about himself, to amend those records if erroneous, and to sue the government for breeches of the law regarding FOIA. In 1982 President Reagan issued an Executive Order—nondemocratic government by fiat—allowing federal agencies to ignore the freedom of information acts for the reason of “national security.” Under President Clinton’s regime previously classified national security documents more than 25 years old were released, thereby giving historians, scholars and the general public information relating to recent history; this has been perhaps the sole benefit of FOI acts, though a limited benefit. A 1996 FOIA update required that certain types of documents created after November 1, 1996 be made available electronically, and more time was given a federal agency to reply to FOIA requests, in light of the heavy volume of such requests. The second President Bush in 2001 issued an Executive Order restricting access to the records of former presidents. In 2009 President Obama rescinded Bush’s Executive Order with one of his own.

The various freedom of information acts have thus been a double-edged sword. The idea is good but not its actual effect. One should condemn the propaganda behind it, and the ballyhoo with which the media has embraced “freedom of information” makes it doubly suspect. The laws are politically and not impartially administered. In reality, by specifying supposedly valid reasons and vague catch-alls for denying access to information, the freedom of information acts actually reduced freedom of information. The perennial question is hence re-posed—who will guard the guardians?

The author’s book Word Power: A Dictionary of Fascinating and Learned Words and Phrases for Vocabulary Enrichment, can be purchased by phoning toll-free 800-462-6420