MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Yesterday, President Obama instructed federal agencies to be more responsive to Freedom of Information requests. It's part of Mr. Obama's pledge to make government more transparent. Tom Blanton has a lot of experience with FOI requests. Just last year, his research institute, the National Security Archive, filed over 2,000 of them. His mission is to open up secret government files.
In this commentary, he says the Freedom of Information Act isn't only important to researchers like him or historians or journalists.
Mr. TOM BLANTON (Director, National Security Archive): Every military veteran, every senior citizen, every private business ought to be cheering the president on because those are the folks who really use the Freedom of Information Act. Now, I know what you're thinking - that Freedom of Information, it's just for journalists, isn't it?
But I am here to tell you, that reporters and researchers like me only file about five percent of the information requests that come in to the federal government. The real glory of the Freedom of Information Act is how it gives ordinary people, all of us, ownership over government records.
The largest single group of people who use the law to get information are actually senior citizens, millions of request last year, asking for copies of their Social Security earnings record or their benefits package or that Medicare prescription drug program.
Military veterans and their families are next, upward of two million requests a year, mainly about their health coverage, disability benefits or service records.
And commercial businesses filed about two-thirds of the rest of the Freedom of Information requests. These companies were trying to find out about government contracts they could bid on or regulations that are coming down the pike or what their competitors are up to. And all that scrutiny makes the market work a lot better, bidding come cheaper, corruption less likely.
But journalist and research groups like mine, well, we were only about five percent of the total. Our requests did make a lot of front page news, like the government's Iraq war plans that assumed everything would be just fine afterwards or inspection data at a Minnesota turkey processor that showed salmonella in more than half the samples.
So, you definitely want folks like me to stay on the case. And as the head of the largest collection of former government secrets, I can say the last eight years were a constant struggle. Washington created record-setting numbers of secrets these last eight years. And a lot of bad decisions hid under that shroud of executive privilege and information control.
This year, I'll be filing more requests about how the United States will get out of Iraq and how we can make sure taxpayers get their money back in the financial bailout. So, yesterday's announcement at the White House was really good news.
President Obama told the country every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known. We'll see how many agencies stand up and salute, but just remember that you, we - all of us have the power to make government more open. Let's make it known.
NORRIS: Tom Blanton is the director of the National Security Archive.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.