The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is frequently referenced by members of President Obama’s administration in the context of their own transparency efforts. However, most Americans are not aware that the Freedom of Information Act was actually signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 6, 1966.
As a refresher, the act allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information controlled by agencies which report to the executive branch of the American government. The act was significantly strengthened between 1995 and 1999 when President Bill Clinton extended the amendments to the FOIA to include the release of previously classified national security documents after a period of 25 years.
President Clinton’s extension of the act specifically released information which revealed a bevy of new information about the Cold War which had been previously unknown to the public, thereby creating a precedent and deadline for delayed but perhaps more educated public debate on the wartime strategies of the US government.
However, it now appears that the latest era of information dissemination might be effectively subverting the original intentions of the FOIA. On July 25th, website Wikileaks which operates in order to publish “leaked documents alleging government and corporate misconduct” released documents in a set entitled the “Afghan War Diary.” The set of documents comprises over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010, essentially reducing FOIA’s 25 year window to zero.
Predictably, the documents which have created an unhappy stir among military and intelligence leaders. The reports are written by a number of different sources at all levels of command and from within and outside the operations in Afghanistan themselves.
The general sentiment of the modern information era claims that with more information we are all better, smarter, healthier and safer. However, this latest leak of classified documents and reports forces us all to re-examine whether we are, indeed, safer as a result of having this type of knowledge? The Wikileaks site itself admits “We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits,” which would suggest that the original restrictions allowed for by President Clinton’s original extension of the FOIA may still hold some water.
While delaying those documents, can we really engage in fully educated discourse about US strategy in Afghanistan? Without the luxury of hindsight, can we accurately determine what works and what doesn’t? These are the tough questions that the US government will continue to face as they grapple with keeping secrets in the face of a world wide web that seeks every day to uncover them.