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History: The Day the Freedom of Information Act Expanded History: The Day the Freedom of Information Act Expanded

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Congress / CONGRESS

History: The Day the Freedom of Information Act Expanded

President Ford(AP Photo)

photo of Kenneth Chamberlain
November 20, 2012

In the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974, the vetoed bill aiming to open up the public's access to government information didn't remain dead for long.

This week marks the 38th anniversary of the override of President Ford's veto of legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA was originally signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, according to the House of Representatives' Clerk's Office. The original law set up a process by which the public could gain access to unclassified, executive branch information, but it proved all too porous and easy to circumvent. Government agencies used a variety of loopholes in the law to justify not making information public.

 

That prompted the House, to pass amendments to close the loopholes in March 1974, by a 383-3 vote, according to the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. The Senate passed similar legislation, 64-17, a couple of months later. The details of the resulting law were hammered out in conference in October.

But then-President Ford disagreed with the strengthening FOIA based on what had been passed. He said in his veto statement that he remained “concerned that our military or intelligence secrets and diplomatic relations could be adversely affected by this bill,” according to text of the statement posted on the University of California (Santa Barbara) website The American Presidency Project. He was also concerned about the privacy issues related to the public's access to law-enforcement records and the amount of time delineated in the legislation for agencies to respond to the law, if passed.

Congress, in turn, disagreed with Ford's veto and voted overwhelmingly to overturn it.

Then-Rep. William Moorhead, D-Pa., the bill's main sponsor in the House, noted, “ ‘Open government’ must not be sacrificed on the altar of bureaucratic secrecy. The hard lessons learned by the tragic Watergate experience must result in some positive achievement,” according to the Clerk's website. The Senate agreed the next day, and the FOIA amendments became part of the law.

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