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The Freedom of Information Act: Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues

CRS – The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues, Wendy Ginsberg, Analyst in American National Government. January 23, 2014.

“The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; 5 U.S.C. §552), often referred to as the embodiment of “the people’s right to know” about the activities and operations of government, statutorily established a presumption of public access to information held by executive branch departments and agencies. Enacted in 1966 to replace the “Public Information” section of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA; 5 U.S.C. Subchapter II), FOIA allows any person—individual or corporate, citizen or not—to request and obtain, without explanation or justification, existing, identifiable, and unpublished agency records on any topic. Each new presidential administration has instructed agencies to implement FOIA differently. For example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the direction of the George W. Bush Administration cautioned federal agencies to give “full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests when making disclosure determinations” and assured them that DOJ would defend agency decisions in court “unless they lack[ed] a sound legal basis or present[ed] an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records.” In contrast, the Barack H. Obama Administration requires agencies “to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.”

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