The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires U.S. government agencies to provide official records on request. Though the law was signed in 1966, the decades before and after were important for its creation and maturity.

California congressman John Moss first championed the idea of a Freedom of Information Act in 1955, during the Cold War, when government secrecy was running high. But it was not for another 11 years that the idea gained enough support in Congress to allow its passage. In 1974, Congress amended FOIA to create enforceable guidelines for responsiveness and penalties for agencies when they failed to comply.

Circular chart showing who makes FOIA requests, by percentages (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

As the graphic shows, the Freedom of Information Act isn’t just used by journalists working on articles. Businesses can use it to find information on past government procurement decisions to improve their bidding skills or use government data to help with market research. And data compiled by the government on health issues can be a valuable tool for university research. You do not have to be affiliated with any organization — or even be a U.S. citizen — to request records under the Freedom of Information Act. It’s all about keeping people in the know about the U.S. government.

Every year a small percentage of requests under the Freedom of Information Act are denied. This is because the requested records fall under one of nine FOIA exemptions — protected areas of information relating to issues such as national security, personal privacy and trade secrets — or one of three exclusions for information about ongoing criminal investigations. Nevertheless, many requests are fulfilled, and the use of the act has increased over the last few years.

Bar chart of FOIA requests by year (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

FOIA making a difference

Helping soldiers

Silhouetted illustration of saluting member of the militaryThe journalist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning 2014 story in the Colorado Springs Gazette used documents acquired through FOIA related to military discharges for misconduct. The documents revealed thousands of soldiers with mental health issues who had been improperly discharged without benefits. After the series was published, Army rules were changed to ensure that mental health professionals were included on discharge boards.

Silhouetted illustration of aircraft in flightDrone safety

In 2014, when Congress had recently authorized unmanned drone aircraft to fly in commercial airspace, a reporter from the Washington Post used FOIA to access Air Force records. The records revealed that more than 400 military drones had crashed because of malfunctions. Up to that point, the policy debate around drones had focused on privacy concerns. The article revealed safety to be another aspect that needed to enter into the policy debate, and it did.