Happy Birthday, FOIA: The Myths and an Unlikely Hero Behind the Origin of the Freedom of Information Act
July 4 marks the 46th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act. President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic law on July 4, 1966, at his ranch in Texas. FOIA has become a cornerstone of American democracy, making it possible for Americans to find out what their government is doing and to hold it accountable for its actions.
The origins of FOIA, however, are surrounded by myths and forgotten (and, in one case, surprising) heroes.
The real – and regrettably forgotten – hero of FOIA was Rep. John E. Moss, a liberal California Democrat who served in the House for 13 terms, from 1953 to 1979. He was never defeated in any election.
Moss’s campaign for open government began on November 7, 1955, when he conducted public hearings on government secrecy. If July 4 is the birthday of FOIA, November 7 is certainly its moment of conception. Interestingly, a Cold War issue stimulated his concern about secrecy. In 1953, he asked the Civil Service Commission for information about the reported 2,800 people that lost their jobs because of the Federal Loyalty Program. The commission denied him that information. Intrigued, Moss asked the House to create the Special Subcommittee on Government Information, which it did in 1955, selecting him as its chair.
Moss quickly found that the habit of secrecy had grown unchecked in federal agencies. The Civil Service Commission told him it had “inherent power” to withhold information. Even the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission kept some of its reports secret. And in 1957 the Pentagon’s general counsel interrupted a Moss hearing three times with tirades against challenges to secrecy.
Moss’s persistent badgering of presidents and federal agencies finally bore fruit in 1966 with FOIA. Forgotten by all but a few Americans, Moss is today honored by the John E. Moss Foundation and the John E. Moss Federal Building in Sacramento, California. He is a true American hero who deserves more public recognition for his great contribution to the democratic process.