Freedom of Information Act; Unlocking Uncle Sam's secrets
Archaeologists make a business of digging in ancient rubbish heaps for stone tools, arrowheads, or odd bits of pottery that open windows on old cultures. In the same way, contemporary historians are sifting through government records hunting for a phone message, interoffice memo, or doodle that might illuminate that modern subterranean culture called "the bureaucracy."Skip to next paragraph
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While the ancients had neither knack nor interest in hiding from the prying eyes of posterity, federal agencies have both. The government is notorious for covering its tracks -- and documents -- with rubber stamps marked "CLASSIFIED." Until recently, scholars trying to unearth records of the post- World War II period from agency files have found themselves vainly clawing at this "buried history."
Now they have a sophisticated new tool to dig with -- the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the strengthening amendments of 1974 and 1976. With it, researchers have already dug up important information on some Central Intelligence Agency activities such as: spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and other United States citizens; experiments with mind-control drugs in the '50s and '60s that killed at least two Americans (Project MK-Ultra); Project Resistance, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's controversial COINTELPRO program to infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt the antiwar and other radical movements; covert actions in Chile; the agency's relations with journalists, academics, and local police departments; and its attempt to keep the story of the Glomar Explorer (the attempt to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine) out of the press.
The Freedom of Information Act has also helped to uncover the dangers of Agent Orange to the health of Vietnam war veterans, and the hazards of low-level radiation to communities near nuclear testing sites.
Publishing houses and university presses alike are cranking out volume after volume based on government documents declassified through the FOIA. Among the most notable books are: Allen Weinstein's "Perjury: The Hiss- Chambers Case"; PEter Wyden's "Bay of Pigs: the Untold Story"; and William Shawcross's "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia."
A few months ago, a Columbia history professor, Sigmund Diamond, published an account in The Nation magazine of the FBI's presence on the Yale campus in the ' 40s. The article, which has caused quite a stir in New Haven and throughout academia, centered on FBI records to which Diamond gained access through the FOIA.
"Most of the bits of information we turn up under the act don't make headlines," says Barton Bernstein, a Stanford history professor who has gotten hundreds of government documents declassified. Over the last several years Bernstein has used the information to publish articles reinterpreting the Korean war, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Last year he made public that at least 11, and perhaps more than 20, American POWs in Hiroshima were killed when the A-bomb was detonated -- a fact the government had kept secret for decades.
"In isolation, the documents are not usually dramatic but they do help fill in the web of history and have strength in their collectivity," Bernstein says. "For anyone working in the history of foreign and domestic policy in the postwar period, the act is essential."
At the moment, scholars like Bernstein are seriously concerned that their new research tool is about to be blunted.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran's taking of US hostages, and Cold War II looming on the horizon, congressional support for the Freedom of Information Act is eroding. The act has come under specific attack from the CIA , which claims it cannot properly function as an intelligence service under disclosure laws applied to the rest of government. In an attempt to strengthen the CIA -- whose wings were severely trimmed after Watergate -- the Carter administration has been pushing for a new CIA charter which, among other things, would grant the agency broad exemptions from disclosure requirements of the FOIA.
Last February, Frank C. Carlucci, deputy director of the CIA, told Congress: "The Freedom of Information act . . . has emerged as the focal point of the often-heard allegation that the CIA cannot keep a secret . . . it is virtually impossible for most of our agents and sources [in foreign countries] . . . to understand the law itself, much less why an organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency . . . should be subject to the act."