November 3 – Our Freedoms: Access to Information

Government Transparency

When John Moss was elected to Congress from California in 1952, the nation was in the midst of a Cold War and government secrecy was on the increase. Representative Moss began advocating for more government transparency after the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower had fired several thousand federal employees accused of being communists. When Congressman Moss asked to see the records associated with the dismissals, the administration refused to turn them over. 

Three years later, Moss became chairman of a congressional subcommittee on government information. He held hearings about government transparency and conducted investigations into cases of federal agencies withholding information. He said, “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information that is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.” 

In 1966, after a decade of effort, Representative Moss finally garnered enough support in Congress to pass the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA. Although President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to sign the bill, he ultimately did so on July 4, 1966. 

Today, FOIA gives any person the right to request access to records of the Executive Branch of the United States Government. The records requested must be disclosed unless they are protected by one or more of the exempt categories of information under the act. 

Under FOIA, the burden of proof to access government information shifted from a requester’s “need to know” to a “right to know” doctrine, where the federal government has to show a need to keep the information secret. Government-wide information on the administration of FOIA is provided by the Department of Justice. 

During fiscal year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the processing and release of information in response to FOIA requests. However, the government reported that the number of requests was 790,688. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice received the most requests, with the Department of Defense close behind. When a request is made, the agency has 10 days to respond as to whether ot not it will grant processing. Officials endeavor to process the requests within a 20-day period. Processing involves locating and transmitting the information to requesters and sometimes involves responses from a variety of employees.  

However, it is not unusual to wait years for the disclosure of records through FOIA. In rare cases, it can even take decades. 

There are, of course, exceptions and exclusions in providing identifiable information. There are nine exemptions under FOIA regulations, including classified national defense and foreign relations information, information prohibited from disclosure by federal law, trade secrets, personnel records, law enforcement information in some cases, and geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells. 

FOIA also has three exclusions. The subject of criminal investigations or proceedings, informant records under criminal law enforcement, and FBI foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism records that are classified. 

News organizations and individual journalists make the most FOIA requests. From time to time, lawsuits have been filed to force the release of information 

While there were a great many FOIA requests during President Obama’s administration, that amount was dwarfed by the number of request during President Trump’s administration. Project in Government Oversight (POGO), a transparency watchdog organization, noted the FOIA office experienced a 30 percent increase in requests during President Trump’s term.

According to Freedom of the Press Foundation, President Obama’s administration, while having promised historic transparency, fell short of its goals and “parts of his administration worked to ensure his commitments were never realized at all.” They reported that transparency worsened during President Trump’s term, stating, “For him, public records and open governance [were] certainly not priorities.” 

Yet, for all its flaws, FOIA remains a critical resource for journalists, activists, and community residents who seek to illuminate government activities. 

Truth, along with transparency, is essential in the Christian life. “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart, who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, or takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, and who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent; he who does these things shall never be moved” (Psalm 15:2-5). 

How then should we pray? 

  • For governing officials to respond to FOIA requests with accurate information.
  • For the chief information officers in each government agency to oversee the provision of data in a timely manner.
  • For members of Congress as they hold investigations into executive branch actions and programs.
  • For representatives and senators as they seek to hold government leaders accountable.
  • For the journalists and reporters who submit FOIA requests to be discerning and factual in their use of the information.
  • With thanksgiving for the process that allows people to discover some of the workings of government. 

See previous Pray 7 daily featured readings.

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