United States

freedom of information: overview

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1966 and went into effect in 1967. (1) It has been substantially amended several times, most recently by the 2007 OPEN Government Act. (2) The law allows any US citizen, to ask for records held by federal government agencies. Agencies include executive and military departments, government corporations and other entities which perform government functions except for Congress, the courts or the President’s immediate staff at the White House, including the National Security Council. According to the law, government agencies must respond in 20 working days.

There are nine categories of discretionary exemptions: national security, internal agency rules, information protected by other statutes, business information, inter and intra agency memos, personal privacy, law enforcement records, financial institutions and oil wells data. There are 142 different statutes that allow for withholding. In 2003, the Homeland Security Act added a provision prohibiting the disclosure of voluntarily-provided business information relating to “Critical Infrastructure”. (3)

Appeals of denials or complaints about extensive delays can be made internally to the agency concerned. The federal courts can review and overturn agency decisions. The courts have heard thousands of cases in the 35 years of the Act.

While the management for FOIA is decentralized, the US Justice Department Office of Information Policy provides guidance and training for agencies. (4)

The FOIA also requires that government agencies publish material relating to their structure and functions, rules, decisions, procedures, policies, and manuals. The 1996 E-FOIA amendments required that agencies create “electronic reading rooms” and make available electronically the information that must be published along with common documents requested. The DOJ has issued guidance that documents that have been requested three times be made available electronically in the Reading Room. The act also requires each agency to have a FOIA liaison, which is responsible for dealing with the public regarding FOIA policy and complaints. (5)

In 2007, there were over 21million requests made to federal agencies under the FOIA. Law enforcement and personal privacy were the most cited exemptions for withholding information. (6)

The FOIA has been undermined by a lack of central oversight and in many agencies, long delays in processing requests. In some instances, information is released only after years or decades. A 2009 report prepared for the Sunshine in Government Initiative reported that between 1998 and 2008 FOIA backlogs and wait times more than doubled. In its 2008 audit of agencies practices, the National Security Archive review found a number of problems:

  • Lost requests.
  • Excessive backlogs.
  • Complete decentralization of agency FOI operations leading to delay and lack of oversight.
  • Websites not in compliance with the law.
  • Inconsistent practices regarding the acceptance of administrative appeals.
  • Appealing FOIA determinations may delay processing, but also may get the agency’s attention.
  • Conflation of fee categorization and fee waiver standards. (7)

There are a number of other laws that provide for access. The Government in the Sunshine Act requires the government to open the deliberations of multi-agency bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission. (8) The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires the openness of committees that advise federal agencies or the President. (9) The Privacy Act of 1974 works in conjunction with the FOIA to allow individuals to access their personal records held by federal agencies. (10)

The Executive Order on Classified National Security Information requires that all information 25 years and older that has permanent historical value be automatically declassified within five years unless it is exempted. (11) Individuals can make requests for mandatory declassification instead of using the FOIA. Decisions to retain classification are subject to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. Between 1980 and 2008, over 1.4 billion pages were declassified, 31.4 million pages in FY 2008 alone. The Information Security Oversight Office, a division of the National Archives, has policy oversight of the Government-wide security classification system. ISOO’s 2008 report shows that classification by government agencies is increasing while declassification has slowed down. (12)

There are also laws in all fifty states on providing access to government records. (13) A number of states have information commissions which review decisions. State laws on freedom of information have also been under threat since September 11 due to terrorism concerns.


(1) Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC 552, 1966. http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_updates/Vol_XVII_4/page2.htm

(2) Open Government Act http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_bills&docid=f:s2488enr.txt.pdf

(3) For a detailed review of the FOI and other open government laws, see Hammitt, Litigation under the Federal Open Government Laws 2002 (EPIC 2002).

(4) Office of Information Policy Website http://www.justice.gov/oip/oip.html

(5) 1996 E-FOIA Amendments http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_updates/Vol_XVII_4/page2.htm

(6) Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2008 http://www.justice.gov/oip/foiapost/2009foiapost16.htm

(7) Mixed Signals, Mixed Results: How President Bush’s Executive Order on FOIA Failed to Deliver http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB246/index.htm

(8) Government in the Sunshine Act, 5 U.S.C. 552b. http://www.epic.org/foia/21/appendixc.html

(9) Federal Advisory Committee Act, 1972, 5 U.S.C. App II. http://www.epic.org/foia/21/appendixd.html

(10) Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. 552a http://www.justice.gov/opcl/privstat.htm

(11) Executive Order – Classified National Security Information http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/executive-order-classified-national-security-information

(12) 2008 Information Security Oversight Office 2008 Report to the President http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/2008rpt.pdf

(13) See Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. http://www.reporters.net/nfoic/web/index.htm

freedom of information: chronology

SOURCE: National Security Archive, “The Freedom of Information Act Turns 35.”

1966 On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson reluctantly signed into law the Freedom Of Information Act. This landmark legislation enshrined in law the public’s right of access to federal government records. The bill that Johnson signed was the effort of several legislators, principal among them US Rep. John Moss (D-CA), a leading consumer advocate, who had begun his crusade of investigations, reports and hearings on government information policy in 1955. Officially, the statute superseded Section 3 of the Administrative Procedures Act, the provision for regulation of government information.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Statement Upon Signing the FOIA (Press Release, Office of the White House Press Secretary, “Statement by the President Upon Signing S.1160”, dated July 4, 1966

Text of Senate Bill 1160 Passed by the US Congress and Signed by President Lyndon Johnson as The Freedom of Information Act

Excerpt from Congressional Record of June 20, 1966, “Clarifying and Protecting the Public’s Right to Know”, (Debate and Vote of the US House of Representatives on Senate Bill 1160, Featuring a Statement by US Rep. John Moss)

When President Gerald Ford took office on August 9, 1974 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was great public cynicism toward government, but also great public desire for access to government information. Despite public sentiment, on October 17 President Ford vetoed H.R. 12471, the bill that would significantly strengthen the Freedom Of Information Act, calling it “unconstitutional and unworkable”. In a dramatic rebuke, the House, on November 20, and the Senate, on November 21, overrode the President’s veto. The amended FOIA now incorporated judicial review of agency decisions, narrowed some exemptions, restricted fees agencies could charge, and set a new 10-day time limit for agencies to comply with a request. The public’s use of the FOIA increased dramatically.

Read more about the veto battle over the FOIA in 1974 on the National Security Archive website

See also Thomas S. Blanton (Executive Director, National Security Archive), “30 years of Freedom of Information,” The Fresno Bee, December 5, 2004.

President Ronald Reagan made no attempt at a major legislative overhaul of the FOIA, but the Congress did amend the law concerning waivers of fees and restrictions concerning law enforcement records. The fee provisions led to significant litigation, including the precedent-setting decision in DOD v. National Security Archive. However, in 1984, the Congress did pass the Central Intelligence Agency Information Act, which put records of some branches of the CIA out of public reach under the FOIA. See links to related documents highlighting Congressional and Administration views on the 1986 amendments to the FOIA.

US Attorney General Edwin Meese III’s Memo Concerning the 1986 Amendments to the FOIA (“A Memorandum for the Executive Departments and Agencies Concerning the Law Enforcement Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC Sec. 552, Enacted as the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, Sections 1801-1804 of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, 100 Stat. 3207, 3207-48 (October 27, 1986)”, dated December 1987)

President William Jefferson Clinton embraced the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, evidenced in part by his directive to cabinet departments in the fall of his first year. Nevertheless, Congress took the lead in dealing with endemic problems in the implementation of the FOIA, such as lengthy delays and extensive request backlogs at agencies. Sen. Patrick Leahy, long a champion of the FOIA, introduced amendments to the FOIA for electronic records in 1994, eventually leading to Clinton’s signature on the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA) Amendments in October 1996. The 1996 amendments codified court decisions on electronic records and extention the previous 10-day limit to 20 working days (4 weeks). In 2000, the General Accounting Office, at Sen. Leahy and others’ request, began a review of the implementation of EFOIA at 25 departments and agencies, which GAO released in March 2001. Below are these and other key documents from the Clinton era concerning the FOIA.

President Clinton’s Memo on FOIA (Memorandum for Heads of Departments and Agencies, “The Freedom of Information Act”, dated October 4, 1993

US Attorney General Reno’s Memo on FOIA (Memorandum for Heads of Departments and Agencies, “The Freedom of Information Act”, dated October 4, 1993

President Clinton’s Statement Upon Signing the EFOIA Amendments (Press Release, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement of the President”, dated October 2, 1996)

US Attorney General Reno’s Memo on Implementation of Clinton Administration FOIA Initiatives (Memorandum for Heads of Departments and Agencies, “The Freedom of Information Act”, dated May 16, 1996

Progress in Implementing the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, GAO 01-378 (March 2001)

Update on the Implementation of the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, GAO 02-493 (August 2002)

freedom of information: further reading

Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone: A National Security Archive Guide

Data.gov: a portal to publicly available U.S. Government datasets

White House Open Government Initiative: Information on Executive Branch Open Governement Initiatives

National Security Archive: Electronic Briefing Books Relying on Released U.S. Government Records and FOI Advocacy News

National Security Archive blog: FOI tips, interesting documents and stories about documents)

National Security Archive audits of the U.S. FOIA system

FOIA legislative history


The FOIA Blog

The FOIA Advocate

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in-depth overview | news archive | ngos | chronology | further reading | excerpt from Global Survey

legal documents

Freedom of Information Act (With 2016 amendments highlighted)   Presidential Freedom of Information Act Memorandum (January 21, 2009)   Attorney General Memo on FOIA (19 March, 2009)   Open Government Directive (December 2009)   Executive Order 13526 Classified National Security Information (December 29, 2009)   Executive Order on Presidential Records (January 2009)   Information Security Oversight Office   Executive Order 13392 (2007)   Privacy Act of 1974   Federal Records Act   Department of Justice Basic FOIA Training Manual  

Additional Resources

FOIA Wiki - A free and collaborative resource on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act is provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others. The National Freedom of Information Coalition   FOIA Advocate, the blog of the Freedom of  Information Coalition and The FOIA Advocate.   The National Security Archive    The National Security Archive FOIA page   The Collaboration on Government Secrecy    Investigative Reporters and Editors   Sunlight Foundation   American Society of Access Professionals   Public Citizen’s Freedom of Information Clearinghouse   Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press   American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Guide to FOIA   The Freedom Forum   The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia   Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)   Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC)   Sunshine Week   GovernmentAttic.org  


Meredith Fuchs Former General Counsel, National Security Archive   Nate Jones Research Assistant



Measuring Openness

Global Right to Information Rating
A country-by-country rating of laws by the Centre for Democracy and Law and Access Info.

Freedom House
The Freedom in the World report.

World Bank
Worldwide Governance Indicators

Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index
Measures perceptions of the degree of corruption.

Reporters Without Borders
The Press Freedom Index.