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Fighting for FOIA

The 45th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) next month should remind all who have used this wonderful citizen tool against government secrecy and cover-ups of FOIA’s towering champion Congressman John Moss (D-Calif.). Last year alone, using John Moss’s brainchild, there were 597,415 separate FOIA requests filed with federal departments and agencies.

As a legislator, John Moss was a wonder of integrity, diligence, strategic and populist follow-through. Although Moss was not a lawyer, he read more bills cover to cover than most lawyers who were members of Congress.

As a freshmen legislator in Sacramento, he took on the powerful speaker of the state’s House of Representatives for having too much concentrated power. You can count on the fingers of both hands the number of new lawmakers who have done that anywhere in the 50-state legislatures over the past century. It usually means, at the least, the end of the upstart’s political career. Talk about courage.

Moss came to Congress in 1952 and by 1955, his 12 years of relentless drive for the public’s right to know was underway. He had to take on the corporate lobbies and their cushy relationship with the secrecy-loving bureaucrats, including their president Lyndon B. Johnson. Moss successfully built support in Congress and nationwide.

Later in 1974, I worked with Chairman Moss to advance the strengthening amendments that allowed judicial review of agency denials of information requests. Toughening the best freedom of information law in the world prompted each of the states to pass their own state freedom of information laws.

Before Moss and FOIA, the Navy Department refused to divulge to environmentalists the amount of sewage dumped into bays from naval bases. Seems that the Navy brass thought the Russians or Chinese, with such data, could figure out how many sailors were stationed at a particular base.

The Postmaster General kept secret public employee salaries. Americans could not access their FBI files. Meat and poultry inspection reports were often held in closed government files. In the foreign policy/military area, the national security state behaved as if secrecy was their birthright.

Each time you see a great segment on “60 Minutes,” or read expos?s in the newspapers and magazines, chances are that they were made possible in part, if not in whole, by reporters using the FOIA. Americans learned about how far up the George W. Bush chain of command the torture policy in Iraq reached from an ACLU request under FOIA.

To be sure, federal agencies are known to delay or redact far more than they should. These agencies take more advantage of the specific exemptions in the FOIA than they should. But compared to the pre-FOIA laws, our ability to find out what the government is or is not doing is almost like night and day.

Our Freedom of Information Clearing House has filed dozens of lawsuits against government agencies for unlawful secrecy. We have won most of them and in the process, improved agency procedures. Our cases provided the evidence showing the need for the 1974 amendments to FOIA as well.

Coming from a humble background ? his mother died when he was 12 years old – John Moss is an American hero. His 25 years in the House of Representatives was marked by leadership in the areas of consumer protection and a level of Congressional oversight of federal agencies, almost unknown by today’s abdicatory Congress.

His life should be a model for high school and college students. They should want to see how his singular character and personality put reality into the saying ? “information is the currency of democracy,” rather than just following the latest peccadilloes of tawdry entertainment and sports celebrities.

Now the young and adults alike have the new book that does Chairman Moss overdue justice. From Michael R. Lemov, chief of the counsel to the Congressman’s two major subcommittees, comes People’s Warrior. This 237-page book covers the personal and professional life of Moss who believed in the political accountability of politicians. More than anyone else in Congress, he gave us a unique law that is invoked only by the desire of people or institutions in the U.S., and sometimes from outside the country. We are the ones who apply this law by using it and improving it.

Of all the legislators I have worked with, John Moss was the most no-nonsense craftsman of them all. Sitting in his office, one did not have to worry about his caving to commercial interests. He took on the auto industry lobbyists in shepherding the Magnuson-Moss Warranty bill through the House (for example, if you bought a lemon car, you can remedy your situation thanks to Moss and his formidable drive for justice.

In so doing, I recommend People’s Warrior especially for young people today, beset with cynicism about Congress or simply “turned off” from politics. The book is an awakening antidote that shows, not so long ago, that there were key members of Congress who made regular, significant decisions on behalf of the people. They were not “cash and carry” politicians as is the norm today at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ralph Nader is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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