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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January 2005, 13:52 GMT
How free is American information?
By Kevin Anderson
BBC News in Washington

A request revealed pictures of US soldiers' coffins returning from Iraq
The United States is often considered the home of Freedom of Information - so as the UK's own act comes into force, what can be learned from the American experience?

The US military spent millions of dollars trying to develop non-lethal chemical weapons which included an aphrodisiac that generals hoped would demoralise enemy troops by causing homosexual behaviour.

The CIA requested information on the toxic qualities of the crocodile gall bladder.

These are some of the more bizarre revelations as a result of freedom of information requests in the United States.

But the US Freedom of Information Act, which turns 40 next year, has also led to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, the recall of the Ford Pinto amid safety fears and confirmation that the CIA was directly involved with the Pinochet regime in Chile.

'Almost wholly secret government'

Although some of the United States' founding fathers were vigorous advocates of freedom of information, it didn't make it into the US Constitution. In fact, the constitutional convention was itself held in secret.

US President Lyndon Johnson
Not best pleased: LBJ signed the act but didn't approve
"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both," said James Madison, one of the signatories of the US Constitution and the fourth president of the United States.

But despite such lofty rhetoric, "access to government information was purely a matter of legislative mercy," says Charles Davis, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Centre.

Critics say secrecy reached new heights following World War II. Officials classified increasing numbers of documents and, by the onset of the Cold War, it was considered a matter of national security.

By the mid 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower had created the Office of Strategic Information to help business and industry keep their secrets safe from foreign powers.

The press went on to complain to the Department of Defense over the way reporters were being treated: The Pentagon was unmoved and officials declared reporters' requests were a waste of time and a potential aid to the Russians.

Furious with this, the American Society of Newspaper Editors found a willing ally in Congress, Representative John Moss of California, who began the campaign for openness.

And, after more than a decade of hearings and advocacy, the United States gained the Freedom of Information Act (Foia) on 4 July 1966.

However, not all were pleased with the idea. Bill Moyers, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, said the chief executive himself was among those concerned, so concerned in fact that "he had to be dragged kicking and screaming" to the signing ceremony.

A level playing field

Nevertheless, campaigners such as Charles Davis say the Act has proved to be "pretty revolutionary".

We talk about the twin veils of privacy and national security that are almost routinely invoked by the government
Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press
"The Freedom of Information Act was a reaction to what was an almost wholly secret government," Mr Davis says. "It levelled the playing field between the governed and the government."

Among the stories to have emerged thanks to Freedom of Information are those where people have directly challenged the words of government, and found the facts to be contrary to what they have been told.

For instance, Foia has proved that some pilots died because of problems with their night vision goggles and not, as the military had claimed, because of their human error.

Campaigners and pressure groups regularly use the law: most recently the American Civil Liberties Union used the act to show that abuse of detainees in Iraq was not isolated to the Abu Ghraib prison.

Another advocate used the law to obtain pictures of flag-draped coffins of US servicemen returning from the war in Iraq. The Pentagon had previously banned the media from attending the arrival services for the dead.

Journalists actually come in a distant third behind businesses and private citizens in their use of the act.

The public has used the act to obtain all manner of information, from genealogical data about their ancestors to information about city planning. Businesses are also heavy users of the act as they try and find novel ways of seeking information on their competitors.

Access to information limited

However, advocates say that these are bleak times for the freedom of information.

Campaigners say the government has scored a number of legal victories in narrowing the ambit of the Act.

Charles Davis of the Freedom of Information Centre says one recent example of this saw out-going Attorney General John Ashcroft declare he could not reveal the identities of 1,200 detainees out of concern for their personal privacy.

And some say that a gentle decline in the power of Freedom of Information has been more precipitous during the Bush administration.

During the Clinton era, the standard for disclosure was that officials should comply with Foia requests unless "disclosure would be harmful".

Under the Bush administration the standard has changed to one that says information should be withheld if there is a "sound basis for doing so."

According to Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, the public has been "shut off" by the Bush administration's approach.

"We talk about the twin veils of privacy and national security that are almost routinely invoked by the government," she says.

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