Forty Years of the Freedom of Information Act

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NPR's Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr reflects on the last 40 years of the Freedom of Information Act.


Here in the US, news organizations are in a spat with the White House concerning stories about anti-terrorism programs. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said reporting on these efforts helps the terrorists. News organizations say it's their job to shine a light on government actions.

The ongoing struggle and an anniversary has senior analyst Daniel Schorr thinking about the government and about secrecy.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Indulge in my own Let Freedom Ring. 40 years ago on the fourth of July, President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act, saying that it was with a deep sense of pride. What we learned years later from his aide, Bill Moyers, was that LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony, hating the very idea of letting anyone rummage through his files.

LBJ was not the last president to find comfort in secrecy. More recently, President Bush, by executive order, overrode the law providing for the release of presidential papers after 12 years. It may or may not be relevant that this protected his father's files as President Reagan's vice president during the Iran-Contra affair.

But never mind. The FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, served me when I needed it. In 1975, after President Nixon had resigned, I applied to the FBI for its file on the investigation of me, which the Nixon White House had ordered. FBI Director Clarence Kelly held that the file was exempt from disclosure, but Attorney General William Saxby overruled him as a matter of administrative discretion.

And so with utter fascination, I was able to read that J. Edgar Hoover, misunderstanding why the president wanted me investigated, launched a wide-open series of interviews about me, including an FBI agent even showing up at my CBS office to interview me. As a cover, the White House stated, rather implausibly, that I was under consideration for a White House appointment.

Those were the glory days of FOIA. In the past 20 years, the FBI has handled more than 300,000 requests and over 6 million pages of documents have been released to the public. Now a system is in development allowing documents to be released in electronic format, that is when the administration is ready to release them.

Ex-President Jimmy Carter, in an op-ed page article today in The Washington Post, says that our government leaders have become increasingly obsessed with secrecy and that secrecy undermines the transparency in government that FOIA was meant to achieve.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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