How the Freedom of Information Act Works

What Is the Freedom of Information Act?
Washington Post staff writers Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in breaking the Watergate story. Bettmann/Getty

When the Freedom of Information Act originally was enacted in 1966, it stipulated that every federal executive branch agency would be required to make its records available to the public. Built into the bill were nine exemptions that could protect an agency from releasing documents in specific circumstances. The act also created an official process for requesters to appeal for access if denied, and put the burden on agencies to prove their right to conceal information [source: Department of Justice].

"​The FOIA ​was signed into law in 1966, and it 'established a policy of openness toward information within the control of the executive branch, and a presumption that such records should be accessible to the American public​,' according to the statute itself," Peters says. "Since then, the FOIA has been used by journalists, historians, attorneys, citizens​ — all kinds of people — to monitor government activities. It's been a ​useful tool ​to enable and empower people to play accountability roles​ in our republic."​​

The original version of the act had the potential to change the public's relationship to previously protected documents, but it wasn't until the Watergate scandal of 1974 that significant changes were introduced that made it much more difficult for agencies to keep secrets.

New rules meant stricter time frames and sanctions around what kind of information could and couldn't be withheld, and journalists and public interest groups were given financial breaks for accessing information thanks to additional language added in by the House and Senate. While President Gerald Ford vetoed the amendments, the House and Senate overrode his decision, and the changes went into effect [source: Electronic Frontier Foundation].

Those aren't the only changes that the FOIA has faced since being enacted. The law has been amended several times throughout the decades since Ford's presidency.