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FOIA Commands Headlines as Law Approaches 50th Birthday

What Links Operation Condor Convictions to News of Widespread Medicare Overcharging? FOIA!

50 of the Year’s Most Important Stories Made Possible by the Freedom of Information Act, Signed 50 Years Ago this July 4


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Edited by Lauren Harper and Tom Blanton
Design by Rinat Bikineyev
For more information, contact Lauren Harper, 202.994.7000 or

Washington DC, June 13, 2016 – Today the National Security Archive celebrates the Freedom of Information Act’s upcoming 50th birthday by highlighting 50 of the year’s biggest news stories made possible by FOIA. The diverse front-page news shows how FOIA can impact human rights, government accountability, and even what you eat.

Here is a sampling of this year’s top stories:

  • FOIA releases to the National Security Archive provided critical evidence in the historic conviction of 14 Argentine military officers and 1 Uruguayan military officer for their participation in the Operation Condor international murder ring and were cited 150 times by the prosecution.
  • Documents released through FOIA proved Pentagon officials deliberately misled Congress on the Defense Department’s handling of sexual assault cases in order to undermine reform legislation.
  • A FOIA lawsuit uncovered that the Obama White House’s Justice Department aggressively lobbied to kill uncontroversial bipartisan FOIA reform in 2014.
  • Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were, FOIA releases to the National Security Archive show, climate change heroes who took action to protect the ozone layer.
  • State-level FOIA releases in Michigan exposed the cost-driven decisions by Flint administrators not to add corrosion controls to the water supply, causing lead poisoning in kids, and the cover-up by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
  • Documents released by the Food and Drug Administration under FOIA show that cheese marketed as being“100% parmesan” contained 0% parmesan – and some wood pulp.
  • Government audits freed by a FOIA lawsuit show widespread billing mistakes – primarily overcharging – in Medicare Advantage program.


Below is a collection of the Archive’s seminal FOIA history postings, a one-stop-resources-shop as the law turns 50:

Signed: LBJ begrudgingly signs the FOIA into law while vacationing at his Texas ranch fifty years ago on July 4, 1966. But the event does not even appear on LBJ’s Daily Diary. LBJ – normally a fan of over-the-top signing ceremonies – refused a public ceremony for the FOIA, and undercut the bill with a signing statement that includes more about the need to keep secrets than the urgency of openness.

Obstructed: President Ford wanted to sign the FOIA-strengthening 1974 amendments, but concern about leaks (shared by his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and deputy Richard Cheney) and legal arguments that the bill was unconstitutional (marshaled by government lawyer Antonin Scalia, among others) persuaded Ford to veto the bill.

Strengthened: On November 20, 1974, the House of Representatives voted to override Ford's veto by a margin of 371 to 31; on November 21, the Senate followed suit by a 65 to 27 vote, giving the United States the core Freedom of Information Act still in effect today including judicial review of executive secrecy claims.

Strengthened Again: The FOIA was strengthened again in 1996 with the passage of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA). The law mandated that agencies post key sets of records online, provide citizens with detailed guidance on making FOIA requests, and use new information technology to post online proactively records of significant public interest, including those already processed in response to FOIA requests and "likely to become the subject of subsequent requests." 

Implemented? The National Security Archive’s 15 government-wide audits have examined various aspects of FOIA implementation, from failure to save email, to not posting required material online, to outdated FOIA regulations, the audits highlight what most needs fixing.

A Look behind The Scenes: Bill Moyers’ “In the Kingdom of the Half-Blind.”

An in-depth Legislative History of the FOIA.

Everything you need to Know About Filing a FOIA: The Archive's detailed 122-page guide, "Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone," is available online at the Archive's FOIA page.



Today the House of Representatives considers passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S. 337). The bill was introduced by Senators John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, and Patrick Leahy, and has already unanimously passed the Senate. Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings have led important efforts to strengthen FOIA in the House, and support the House passing the Senate bill. If the House does pass the Senate bill, it will go to the President’s desk – and the White House has indicated the President will sign it.

The bipartisan, bicameral bill would improve FOIA by:

  • Mandating a 25-year sunset for the “wildly misused” FOIA exemption (b)(5), an exemption that currently has no time limit and was recently used to successfully deny a CIA draft history of the 53-year-old Bay of Pigs invasion. This incredibly large cutout is often called the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.
  • Requiring agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days after the passage of the bills. (A National Security Archive audit shows that too many federal agencies have not updated their regulations to comply with the 2007 Open Government FOIA improvements. By neglecting to update their “FOIA handbooks,” agencies are essentially ignoring Congress’s FOIA reforms.)
  • Codifying the presumption of openness, thereby requiring that records be released unless there is a foreseeable harm or legal requirement to withhold them. This language mirrors the Obama administration’s and the Department of Justice’s (non binding) instructions on FOIA.
  • Improving public digital access to released records.
  • Strengthening and increasing the independence of the FOIA Ombuds Office – the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).

Consideration of this legislation comes just before the law – signed begrudgingly by LBJ on July 4, 1966 – turns 50.

May 27, 2016

Documents released to the National Security Archive under FOIA cited 150 times in historic Operation Condor convictions

Agency: Multiple

May 9, 2016

Shell and other big oil groups abandon billions in Arctic drilling rights, according to Interior Department records obtained by conservation group Oceana under the FOIA

Agency: Department of the Interior

May 5, 2016

Photos taken by President Bush's personal photographer show Bush's reaction to 9/11 as the day unfolds

Agency: George W. Bush Presidential Library

April 24, 2016

State-level FOIA releases in Michigan propel ongoing exposé of cost-driven decisions not to add corrosion controls to Flint water supply, and the cover-up to hide mistakes.

April 20, 2016

FBI hides tech secrets from federal prosecutors out of fear they may one day work as defense attorneys

Agency: Federal Bureau of Investigation

April 18, 2016

DOD deliberately misled Congress over handling of sexual assault cases to dampen support for Senate bill that would grant independent prosecutors more authority, according to documents released under the FOIA to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders

Agency: Department of Defense

April 14, 2016

FOIA request shows USAID hoped long FOIA delays would help protect agency from public backlash over "Cuban Twitter" fiasco

Agency: United States Agency for International Developmen

April 5, 2016

TSA paid $1.4 million for an app that decides which security lane you will stand in that took 10 minutes to develop

Agency: Transportation Security Administration

March 28, 2016

DIA official used Pentagon-provided ride service as a personal limo service, according to DOD IG report released under FOIA to the Washington Post

Agency: Defense Intelligence Agency

March 18, 2016

FOIA request shows thousands of US government employees under permanent evaluation under "Insider Threat" program

Agency: Department of Defense

"Insider Threat" program

March 18, 2016

FOIA lawsuit reveals what magic words ("referencing") you must use to get CIA to (maybe) process your FOIA request and search for documents

Agency: Central Intelligence Agency

March 18, 2016

FOIA shows federal marshals inappropriately used classification labels to hide controversial cell phone surveillance practices

Agency: US Marshals, Department of Justice

March 9, 2016

Pentagon Inspector General report justifies deployment of military spy drones over the US for non-military purposes

Agency: Department of Defense

March 8, 2016

FOIA request shows Obama administration lobbied to kill bipartisan FOIA bill

Agency: Department of Justice

March 3, 2016

Lawsuit shows FBI FOIA search convoluted by design to avoid FOIA disclosures

Agency: Federal Bureau of Investigation

February 2016

Bringing more attention to release of detainee abuse photos through FOIA requests

Agency: Department of Defense

February 25, 2016

Attorney General Eric Holder used Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's birth name as his official email address

Agency: Department of Justice

February 17, 2016

New York Times FOIA shows Defense secretary Ashton Carter relied on personal email for months after revelation Hillary Clinton used personal email, server exclusively

Agency: Department of Defense

February 3, 2016

FOIA moves to late-night as Stephen Colbert grills Donald Rumsfeld with declassified memo quoting him saying the amount of "unknowns" regarding Iraq's WMD program was "big"

Agency: Department of Defense

February 2, 2016

This is not the cheese you are looking for; FDA FOIA release shows cheese manufacturer was putting no parmesan in item labeled "100% parmesan"

Agency: Food and Drug Administration

February 1, 2016

Bacardi FOIA request shows US Patent and Trademark Office renewed trademark registration of Havana Club to the Cuban government after Cuban government seized it from Bacardi during Cuban revolution

Agency: Department of the Treasury

January 5, 2016

Secretary Clinton's staff vetted politically sensitive FOIA requests

Agency: Department of State

December 11, 2016

FOIA request shows Bill Clinton White House's struggle to restore US leadership on climate change parallels many faced by Obama administration

Agency: Department of State

December 7, 2015

Headline: What is the Freedom of Information Act? It is, among other things, the answer to December 7th's Final Jeopardy clue -- "The website for this '60s act says ‘First look to see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available.'"

December 2, 2015

FOIA releases show 1980's GOP recognized the need for US leadership on ozone depletion and climate change

Agency: Department of State

November 27, 2015

New FOIA-released documents show NSA still collecting Americans' emails

Agency: Department of State

November 18, 2015

National Insider Threat Task Force compares whistleblowers like Thomas Drake to murderers and spies

Agency: Department of Justice

November 3, 2015

NPR obtains evidence through FOIA that Army conducted chemical experiments on troops according to race; builds database to inform soldiers affected but never informed by DOD

Agency: Department of Defense

October 26, 2015

FOIAs show IRS, increasingly involved in drug cases, buys STINGRAY cellphone surveillance equipment

Agency: Internal Revenue Service

October 1, 2015

FOIAs show DOS plants Anti-WikiLeaks questions for 60 Minutes' interview with Julian Assange

Agency: Department of State

September 30, 2015

DOJ cites cited FOIA's exemption 5 – the deliberative process exemption – rather than the national security exemption in denying FOIA request for any OLC memos relating to the constitutionality of using military force against ISIL

Agency: Department of Justice

Extention 5

September 29, 2015

FOIA request shows Generals sought more positive coverage of head injuries from West Point boxing classes after receiving FOIA request from New York Times

Agency: Department of Defense

September 29, 2015

FOIA documents reveal hot spots, fish kills and toxic dumps on Okinawa military base

Agency: Department of Defense

September 27, 2015

DEA internal affairs log released under FOIA shows that agents routinely keep jobs despite serious misconduct – like dealing drugs and drunk driving

Agency: Drug Enforcement Administration

September 15, 2015

FOIA releases used to compile the Anwar al-Awlaki File

Agency: Multiple, including FBI, USAID, DOJ, NSA

September 4, 2015

100 years of needless secrecy; FOIA uncovers FBI file on novelist Gabriel García Márquez

Agency: Federal Bureau of Investigation

August 27, 2015

FOIA release shows DOJ considered prosecuting Anwar al-Awlaki on interstate prostitution charges

Agency: Federal Bureau of Investigation

August 26, 2015

FOIA release shows president may withhold WMD info from Congress if doing so would harm national security

Agency: Department of Justice

August 20, 2015

FOIA lawsuit for Kissinger Telcons wins release of documents showing US Leaders’ candid thinking about Israel, Vietnam, Cyprus, Korea, U.S.-Soviet Détente, US politics, and key personalities of the period

Agency: Department of State


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