Somewhere George Orwell is smiling. The journalist and novelist probably could not have imagined cellphones, but he could and did imagine a government destroying citizens’ privacy while keeping its own secrets.
This week our government took two steps toward respecting people’s privacy and sharing its own information. The Supreme Court decision that police do need a warrant to see what’s in your cellphone is huge.
At the same time, quietly, Republicans and Democrats, are cooperating on an issue. Yes—be still my heart. Senate and House are both working to make the Freedom of Information Act stronger. Squee!
Side note, when I was a little baby journalist, I struggled with how to pronounce FOIA. I tried saying it by spelling out the acronym. My award-winning colleague Genevieve Belmaker freed me from embarrassment when she taught me the magical “foy-yah” incantation.
It can and does unlock secrets, from bid irregularities to VA waiting list numbers. It was born on July 4, 1966, and “gives you the right to access information from the federal government.” A person can make a FOIA request to any government agency, lo, even the NSA or the CIA. Or the IRS, which may have secrets of its own.
It works best if you can be very specific about what you need to know and when it happened. “It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government,” according to FOIA.gov.
Sadly, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has been freer with the black ink, classifying and redacting things that might properly be covered by FOIA. Sometimes documents have entire sections blacked out with only a few words visible. No freedom there.
However, “Congress may actually take action this year to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act,” according to the National Security Archive’s posting this week of the new bipartisan bill by leading U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).
The bill is the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. It would limit the government’s ability to withhold “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters” with the Orwellian sounding “pre-decisional Exemption Five.”
My favorite part of this news is that the House has already unanimously passed its own bipartisan FOIA reform bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). Issa, the bold warrior of the right, has co-sponsored a bill with Cummings. That is the same Cummings whose microphone he cut in March at a hearing about the IRS and tea party groups.
If those two can co-sponsor legislation to make government more open and more responsive to citizens, I feel hopeful about our republic.