In victory for open government, U.S. updates disclosure law

Journalists have used it to find out how many times lobbyists have visited the White House. Historians have used it to search for undiscovered information about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Conspiracy theorists have used it to research a supposed crash of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico.

It is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a half-century-old law now updated to give the public even more access to government documents and records.

The changes to FOIA that President Obama signed into law on June 30 will require that federal agencies consider releasing records under a “presumption of openness” standard, instead of presuming that the information is secret.

Under the amended law

  • a new website will be created to streamline and centralize information requests to any agency.
  • government agencies will face a 25-year deadline to release documents that shed light on how they make decisions.
  • agencies will be required proactively to disclose documents that are likely to be of interest to the public.

The Freedom of Information Act is one way people can hold officials accountable.

Before he signed the new changes into law during a brief Oval Office ceremony, Obama said the legislation would lock in some of the gains his administration already has made toward achieving a more open and responsive government.

“But I know that people haven’t always been satisfied with the speed with which they’re getting responses and requests,” Obama said. “Hopefully, this is going to help and be an important initiative for us to continue on the reform path.”