How the Freedom of Information Act Works


Notable Changes to the FOIA Through the Decades
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush made significant changes to the Freedom of Information act, ordering thousands of documents and data removed from agency websites. Universal Images Group/Getty
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush made significant changes to the Freedom of Information act, ordering thousands of documents and data removed from agency websites. Universal Images Group/Getty

The next major changes to the Freedom of Information Act came at the hand of President Ronald Reagan. In 1982, Reagan created rules that made it easier for agencies to withhold information from requesters. If agencies could prove the requested documents contained potentially sensitive government information, they could keep it protected. During Bill Clinton's presidency, however, many of these stricter regulations around classified information were reversed [source: Electronic Frontier Foundation].

While Clinton was responsible for many landmark events in the history of the FOIA, including the release and archiving of previously classified Cold War-era documents, one of his most notable changes to the law came in 1996. That's when the president signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments into law, putting pressure on government agencies to keep up with the changing times and create electronic copies of important documents for digital distribution [source: Electronic Frontier Foundation].

However, President George W. Bush tightened restrictions again after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, specifically, the administration ordered thousands of documents and data removed from agency websites, including pipeline maps, airport safety data and environmental data. Bush also limited access to the records of former presidents, and then later through the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002, which limited access to records requests made by any foreign government or international governmental organizations. It also limited access to agencies within the intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and parts of the Departments of Defense and State.

But while Bush made some documents tougher to access, he also gave credibility and authority to a larger pool of potential FOIA requesters. The OPEN Government Act of 2007 added alternative journalists, freelancers and bloggers as legitimate members of the press, providing them more affordable access to government records. The 2007 amendments also introduced the Office of Government Information Services, which began operating in the National Archives and Records Administration in 2009. "It reviews agency policies and FOIA compliance, recommends policy changes to congress and the president, and offers free​ ​mediation services to resolve disputes between requesters and agencies, as an alternative to litigation — which can be costly," Peters says.

Throughout the Obama administration, the act continued to evolve. In 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum on his first day in office, promising to reform crucial parts of the law to allow for unprecedented governmental transparency [source: Obama White House]. "Another key change is that [in 2016] President Obama​ signed the FOIA Improvement Act, which ​has ​made it easier to access records," Peters says.

Some of the main 2016 changes reinstate previous measures. "The law requires agencies to make ​any disclosable ​records available to the public via electronic format," Peters says. "This speed​s​ up production​ [and] reduce​s​ costs." The law also forces agencies to permanently release documents to the public once they're requested at least three times, and it makes it harder for agencies to deny requests by simply saying "no."

"The law contains exemptions, ​of course, ​​but now, instead of records being withheld simply because they meet an exemption, agencies ​are allowed to invoke exemptions only if they ​reasonably ​believe disclosure will harm an interest protected by the exemption," Peters says.

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