As some of you may know, Jane Hamsher and the wonderful team here at Firedoglake have taken steps recently to promote the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), especially within the context of the Occupy movement. I applaud all of their efforts in promoting the usage of this law as a means of achieving greater transparency and understanding of situations effecting real people everyday.
Over the past several months I have had the privilege of helping Lt. Dan Choi to use FOIA in order to get information that is helpful for him across multiple levels. Without going into detail here, he has been able to find information that has shown abuses and infringement on his civil liberties and rights that goes to the highest levels of government. This kind of treatment is sickening and downright un-American. We need to hold our elected officials accountable for abuses and wrongdoing no matter if we agree with them politically or not.
FOIA was passed by Congress in 1966 and implemented in 1967, and while it has been amended 3 times since, it remains a strong tool of transparency for the federal government, and one that many states have mimicked by passing similar laws. While the history of how and why this law came into being is a current area of academic research for me, the ability to effectively utilize FOIA to enhance accountability and transparency has become necessary.
FOIA is a tool that can be used in several ways. In one way, it allows for the public to gain access to information that is normally kept out of the public view. By targeting federal agencies for specific information, we can learn a great deal about various issues, whether it is on the Occupy Movement or government contracts. Public information is not always public, and the government will often fight in order to keep vital or embarrassing information out of the public realm.
At a time when we often feel powerless, FOIA is a way to literally speak truth to power.
The other way that FOIA is useful is as a means of pushing back against a government that feels no remorse in pushing others around. Experience has taught me that a well-placed FOIA request to the right agency can work wonders in upsetting those who have themselves been able to wreak havoc upon the citizenry. Simply as an exercise or as a fishing expedition, FOIA can put agencies and the people working within them on notice that someone is paying attention. In this way, it also opens the door to future requests and provides direction. You will be amazed at what you can uncover.
This is just my opinion on how and why this underutilized law could be the key to turning the tide. I am happy to see so many people on FDL who are interested in FOIA, and under the tutelage of Jane and her team, begin to understand and use FOIA, and I hope to see more.
FDL has put up a page with instructions on the FOIA process and I strongly encourage everyone to take a look and begin to understand that you, yes you, have a voice and can make a difference.
Thomas Jefferson said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” I realize that it has almost become cliché to quote the founders, especially considering the whole teabagger phenomenon, but it is true. The founders envisioned a well-informed and participatory citizenry, and while most of the founders would have probably been opposed to FOIA, nevertheless we have this tool in our arsenal to use and we need to use it. There is an anonymous quote that says, “Democracy is like sex, it works better when you participate.” Need I say any more?