According to the Washington Post, every year the federal government classifies millions of megabytes of information as secret. Sometimes this is necessary but a recent report by the government’s own Public Interest Declassification Board makes it clear that classification is used far too often and declassification takes far too long. Why does this matter? Because this is a democracy where open government and public access are necessary if we, the people, are to be informed and responsible citizens. With that in mind, what are our options if we suspect the government is withholding information we need to know?
The official avenue to classified information is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This act allows anyone to request materials generated by the executive branch of government with certain exceptions. The nature of those exceptions has varied over time—some administrations are more lenient others more guarded in how vigorously secrets should be kept—but it still provides us with a means of accessing classified federal records. The legislation had also changed over time. One of the most important amendments to the FOIA is the Privacy Act of 1974 which provides individual citizens the right to know what information the federal government has collected about them personally. If you are interested in taking advantage of the FOIA, there is A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records.
Who Uses the Freedom of Information Act?
While anyone can use the FOIA, requests from certain kinds of groups are more common than others. Journalists, academics, and government watchdog groups are the most frequent users. Of all those who utilize the FOIA, however, the National Security Archive makes more requests than any other entity. Based at George Washington University, it is a private, non-profit organization that specializes in requesting and publishing official secrets and is the largest holder of federal records outside of the government itself. If you have any interest in American military, foreign, or intelligence policy, this is a site you really need to explore. Because it is a strong advocate for open government, the National Security Archive also provides its own detailed instructions designed to help those filing FOIA requests.
Alternatives to the Freedom of Information Act
There are sources operating without sanction that seek to expose government secrets. Some people consider these sources as heroic whistleblowers exposing government misdeeds while others think of such sources as criminals who endanger American security. For example, revelations coming from documents leaked by Edward Snowden have created a maelstrom of controversy over privacy both in the U.S. and abroad. Much has been written about Snowden but good places to start are The Guardian (the news outlet with whom Snowden initially worked) and an extensive interview in Wired. Also significant is Wikileaks, a self-described non-profit organization dedicated to providing a secure outlet where anonymous sources can leak information. Historically, some leaks have proven invaluable such as Daniel Ellsberg exposing the Pentagon Papers and Mark Felt (AKA Deep Throat) who assisted reporters investigating the Watergate scandal. The challenge is telling the difference. What, if any, is the difference between a “good” leak and a “bad” leak? What are the ethical ramifications of leaks? These are questions we must attempt to answer as a society if we are to fulfill our obligations as citizens in a democracy.
If you want to know more about government secrecy or using the Freedom of Information Act, don't hesitate to Ask a Librarian. We would love to help!