All significant aspects of civic life in the United States are affected by the federal government. The news media — including print, online and broadcast journalists — regularly inform the public about the policies and actions of government.
The public’s ability to receive information about government has been significantly enhanced by the federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966; the Federal Advisory Committee Act, passed in 1972; and the Government in the Sunshine Act, passed in 1976.
By making all records of federal agencies presumptively available upon request, FOIA guarantees the public’s right to inspect a storehouse of documents. Likewise, FACA presumes the right to attend meetings of federal advisory committees and the Sunshine Act opens meetings held by federal agencies. The Privacy Act, passed in 1974, also affects the way journalists obtain information from the federal government about themselves and others.
Journalists and scholars have used FOIA, FACA and the Sunshine Act to investigate a variety of news stories and historical events. Their discoveries, based on documents they received or discussions they witnessed, have often brought about crucial change to many aspects of public life.
FOIA has been used to reveal to the public vital information on health and safety.
Five days after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, both the mayor of New York City and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator had declared the area a low risk for environmental dangers. But the EPA’s responses to FOIA requests from a New York Daily News reporter helped him demonstrate, months after the collapse, that “Ground Zero” was contaminated with asbestos and other chemicals. Manhattan residents, rescue workers and others were victims of a “web of environmental deception,” the Daily News reported.
In 2003, the Dayton Daily News reported the results of dozens of FOIA requests to the Peace Corps on the risks corps volunteers, especially women, have faced abroad from violence, accidents, disease and suicide. The responses, in tandem with the newspaper’s reporting through interviews and travels, showed that the agency’s own statistics masked the dangers to which the volunteers were exposed.
The newspaper had previously used FOIA to show that women in the U.S. military endured cavalier responses to rape charges brought against enlisted men and officers, many of whom had been accused before. It also used FOIA to obtain Occupational Safety and Health Administration databases and identify the most dangerous work places in the country.
Other reporters have used FOIA to identify wasteful government spending.
Several reports have spotlighted the mismanagement of funds intended for those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast region in 2005. Eventually, as audits and investigations were made public, there were reports of debit cards issued as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency cash assistance program being distributed to individuals who submitted falsified information. Later, reports surfaced that more than 10,000 unused trailer homes ordered by FEMA and intended for those displaced by the storms were sitting in Arkansas fields. More recently, CNN found that 121 truckloads of basic household goods, including dishes and linens, that were donated or purchased with government funds were being re-sold to federal and state agencies, rather than distributed to individuals still in need of aid.
A 2007 Washington Post article used FOIA to find that only $40 million of $854 million in cash and oil intended to be sold to raise money for the hurricane victims had actually been collected and put to use. The documents received by the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also showed the U.S. declined the free use of cruise ships from Greece and instead later paid Carnival Cruise Lines $249 million to use its ships for hotels or hospitals — and then let those ships sit empty for several weeks.
FOIA has been used for many other purposes, uncovering important information about the 1950s-era Rosenberg spy trials; FBI harassment of civil rights leaders; surveillance of authors, scientists and composers; international smuggling operations; environmental impact studies; the salaries of public employees; and sanitary conditions in food processing plants.
Reporters have successfully used FOIA to learn about crimes committed in the United States by foreigners with diplomatic immunity, cost overruns of defense contractors, and even terrorist activities — including a plan to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a trip to this country.
Although FOIA is an important source of information, reporters should recognize its limitations. Information obtained through a FOIA request is rarely the story itself. Rather, it can be used to verify other sources and information. Sometimes information obtained from a request can simply identify leads or sources for a story that the reporter later can follow up on in person. Some journalists who cover a specific agency routinely make requests to that agency in order to watch for emerging trends and to develop a checklist for story ideas. Some journalists even review FOIA requests that have been filed by others. Following up on these, either by filing identical requests or interviewing the original requester, can trigger new story ideas.
Despite Congress’ intent, records are not always released by agencies within the 20-day time frame, and often are withheld, sometimes improperly, under one of the law’s exemptions. As a result, journalists often plan long-term projects and reports around the information sought, allowing for delays should they occur. Diligent follow-up with the agencies can boost a journalist’s chance of having the request filled. Also, if a request is denied, persistence in appealing the denial may help pry the requested records loose.
Reporting can be greatly enhanced through use of FOIA, FACA and the Sunshine Act — and that starts with understanding how each law works.