In 1993, Monte Finkelstein filed what would become one of the longest-running requests for government records in history. Eager to complete his book on the relationship between the Allies and the Sicilian mafia during World War II, the community-college professor submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Archives.
Five years later and still waiting for a response, Finkelstein published his book without the documents. “To be honest, I gave up,” he said. “I just surrendered. From my point of view, it was a bureaucratic nightmare.”
On Thursday—a few days before July 4, the Freedom of Information Act’s 50th birthday—President Barack Obama signed one of the most hard-fought FOIA-reform bills in decades. In doing so, he’ll make permanent the presumption that all government records are public unless proven otherwise, a central tenet of his administration’s efforts, and one currently vulnerable to revocation by, say, President Trump. This alone is cause for high-fives among open-government groups, who convinced many states to enshrine that common-sense provision in their laws. Until now, the United States Congress never has.
At first glance, the bill doesn’t necessarily do much for people like Finkelstein. There’s nothing to speed up the turnaround for a request, which can stretch into weeks for routine records. It doesn’t force the government to pay the legal fees of a requestor if a judge takes the requestor’s side in court. And crucially, it does little to challenge security and intelligence agencies, which try to avoid disclosing documents almost by default, sometimes before they’ve even looked for the requested files. This bill took almost a decade to get to the president’s desk, dying a dozen deaths along the way. A cynic could be forgiven for flipping through the text and wondering, is this it?