By DANA LIEBELSON
It has been 46 years since President Lyndon Johnson quietly signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law on the Fourth of July, officially giving the public access to federal government records. With thousands upon thousands of requests now processed per year, it’s easy to take this law for granted. But to this day, ordinary citizens must fight to obtain important records—particularly those showing government wrongdoing. In that spirit, here are five important pieces of government information that, without FOIA, would still be hidden from the public.
Don't miss the inforgraphic after the jump about FOIA past and present
1. The CIA’s “Family Jewels”
In 2007, the CIA released its “family jewels”—also known as its closet skeletons—a 702-page file detailing illegal CIA activity that occurred from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s. The revelations included everything from illegal wiretapping and journalist surveillance, to human experimentation and a plot to assassinate Congo leader Patrice Lumumba. The file was released 15 years after the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request. But without FOIA—these skeletons may have never left the closet.
2. Torture at Overseas Detention Centers
In 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a FOIA request for documents relating to the abuse and torture of U.S. prisoners held at overseas detention centers. After the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2004, the government turned over documents detailing torture techniques at Guantanamo—such as waterboarding and sensory deprivation. Overall, more than 100,000 pages have been made public.
3. Insider Trading at the Securities and Exchange Commission
Gary Aguirre, a former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) staff attorney, filed FOIA requests in 2005 and 2006 seeking records about a SEC insider trading probe into Pequot Capital Management. Aguirre said the SEC gave special treatment to Wall Street banker, John J. Mack, whom Aguirre suspected of leaking information to Pequot, during the investigation. Aguirre also said he was fired for blowing the whistle. After a FOIA lawsuit—where the SEC tried to seek an exemption and was overruled—30,000 pages of SEC records were released, giving the public new insight into SEC misconduct that led to the financial crisis.
In 2010, according to Thomson Reuters, the SEC filed a complaint against that company for insider trading. Pequot and its CEO agreed to pay $28 million in settlement.
4. Thousands of Americans at Risk for Flooding
In 2007, an Associated Press reporter obtained a document through FOIA from the Army Corps of Engineers revealing that 122 levees in the U.S. are at risk for flooding. The document showed that the levees could endanger people who lived near them, and also seriously affect insurance rates.
5. Pentagon Ignores Tip on $200 Million in Wasteful Spending
Thanks to a FOIA request by the Knight-Ridder News Service, we now know more about waste within the Department of Defense. In 2005, a retired Army Reserve officer called the Pentagon's fraud hotline on 135 cases where the Department of Defense was overcharged for appliances—wasting up to $200 million taxpayer dollars. But the Pentagon never adequately investigated the tip, and without FOIA, it may never have come to light.
Infographic by Andre Francisco, POGO's online producer.