Yesterday, we celebrated the 11th annual International Right to Know Day, recognizing the right of access to information and the importance of government transparency. Ninety-three countries around the world have transparency laws or regulations guaranteeing citizens the right to seek information held by the government. One of those is the United States – our 1966 federal Freedom of Information Act, known commonly as “FOIA,” was one of the earliest modern government transparency laws.
Laws like the Freedom of Information Act are extremely important in, among other things, promoting democratic accountability and combating government corruption. Here at the ACLU, we have frequently used FOIA to expose government policies that violate human rights and put civil liberties at risk, and published thousands of documents across a large range of issues obtained through FOIA requests. Here are just a few examples:
- Our Torture Database contains over 100,000 pages of documents exposing the U.S. government’s authorization of torture and cruel treatment of detainees after September 11, 2001.
- An ACLU FOIA request helped reveal that U.S. immigration authorities failed to provide proper medical treatment to a 36-year-old detainee, who died as a result, and that they were not properly documenting the number or cause of deaths taking place in their custody.
- Using state-level analogs to the federal Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU exposed state and local law enforcement agencies’ frequent use of warrantless cell phone location tracking and automatic license plate readers.
But the success of the ACLU and other organizations in using FOIA doesn’t mean that the U.S. has a perfect record on transparency. Far from it. Often, simply requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act is not nearly enough to get it. The government frequently denies FOIA requests and gives little to no justification for the decision. Or, as they did to the ACLU earlier this year, they might return a document that is completely redacted, made up almost entirely of useless black squares. There are legitimate exemptions to FOIA that allow the government not to disclose certain information that does need to be kept secret. But the government can and does abuse these exemptions at times. High processing fees can also undermine access to information in some cases.
The ACLU is able to, and frequently does, sue the government to overcome these hurdles and receive the information we asked for. But the government still sometimes succeeds in keeping information secret that it would be in the public interest to disclose, and most people don’t have the ability to sue the government on a regular basis.
As recent disclosures about the NSA’s covert mass surveillance program make all too clear, our government has secrets that it will not turn over upon request, and our courts won’t always force them do it, either. When that happens, leaks from whistleblowers in the know are the only way that the public can learn about what the government is doing. But unfortunately, leaks that are overwhelmingly in the public interest and seek to hold the government accountable for its abuses are often treated as serious crimes. This is especially true under the Obama Administration, which has invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 to punish leakers more times than all previous administrations combined. In fact, sometimes whistleblowers might, like Chelsea Manning, be punished far more severely than the government officials they expose, even when those officials authorized torture or killed innocent civilians.
On International Right to Know Day, we recognize great tools like the Freedom of Information Act that we can use to promote government transparency in the United States. But we also know that we need to keep on using those tools to advocate for ever greater openness, and work hard to make the accountability that should come with that openness a reality.