What is the Freedom of Information Act? The best description comes from straight from the government website:
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
Initially enacted in 1966 by Lyndon B. Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act did not take effect until July 4, 1967 (and was actually replaced by a virtually identical bill before it was enacted).
It only applies to executive branch agencies and there are several exemptions in place, such as to protect privacy, trade secrets, financial and geological, and the one probably used the most, national security.
Gerald Ford wanted to strengthen the FOIA with amendments in 1974 after the Watergate scandal but was talked out of it by Donald Rumsfield, Dick Cheney, and Antonin Scalia, who argued that it was unconstitutional. Congress overturned his veto.
It has been amended several times since it was first enacted, most notably to include digital and electronic files and to both protect former presidents but also to protect any information they may acquire.
So what does all that mean for us? That means that if you want to get some information from an agency like the CIA, you fill out a form that says you think they have the information you want, and could you please see it? If it doesn’t fall into one of the exemptions, there’s a chance they will send you a copy of it. It’s supposed to help the government remain “open and transparent” with the citizens.
So how does this help me? I don’t know. I may get to a point in my research that I have to file a FOIA request in order to get any more information or a sense of what happened. It’s good to know this option is there should I need it. For now, I’m going to try to get as much as I can without this step.
[A good portion of the historical information came from this Wikipedia article on the Freedom of Information Act.]