On December 7, 1915, then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in his State of Union address, said: “There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue.”
President Wilson added: “I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in doing so I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own. It is possible to deal with these things very effectually. I need not suggest the terms in which they may be dealt with.” And, thus was born the groundwork for the creation of the Espionage Act. Although the Act itself dates back to 1917, it is still utilized to this very day – the Edward Snowden affair being a perfect, relatively recent example. In addition, it was used in the affair of Bradley Manning, who, in 2010, was serving with the U.S. military and who secretly provided Julian Assange’s Wikileaks with documentation that was still classified.
Now, it’s time to take a careful look at the Freedom of Information Act. While, in theory, it is designed to allow American citizens access to government, military, and intelligence files, that doesn’t always prove to be the case. The U.S. Government says of the FOIA: “Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.
“The FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. The Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice is responsible for issuing government-wide guidance on the FOIA as part of its responsibilities to encourage all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA.”
Signed into existence on July 4, 1966 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act is an important piece of legislation when it comes to the matter of the public’s right to know – on all matters of relevance to issues that impact on our lives, and particularly so in relation to widespread control of the public. There are, however, various clauses within the FOIA that permit the widespread withholding of files, if such a thing is seen as warranted and justified. Indeed, there are no less than nine exemptions that allow for the denial of files under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. They are as follows: classified information for national defense or foreign policy, internal personnel rules and practices, information that is exempt under other laws, trade secrets and confidential business information, inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters that are protected by legal privileges,personnel and medical files, law enforcement records or information, information concerning bank supervision, and geological and geophysical information What all of this tells us is that the flow of information that might surface under the FOIA can, at times, be reined in – and significantly so, too.