Years after FOIA passed, the Sacramento Bee filed a FOIA request to the Department of Justice for records about Moss and the request produced folders full of FBI surveillance, including the March 31, 1960 FBI agent note: "Our relations have not been favorable with Congressman Moss." Presumably, Moss fell out of favor with the FBI because of his relentless demands for FOIA. More than 30 federal agencies and members of both parties who testified against passage of FOIA and many of Moss' colleagues urged him to back down from the bill.
In 1965, Moss found an odd bedfellow as a FOIA champion in a freshman Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, who later became Secretary of Defense and an architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rummy and a cohort of Republican congressman planned to use the FOIA law to embarrass Democrats. The Democrats ultimately called Rumsfeld's bluff and FOIA was begrudgingly passed by Congress. Decades later it would be reporters' use of the FOIA law that would expose Rumsfeld's role in approving the atrocities and torture at Abu Ghraib prison.
Lemov recounts that despite signing FOIA into law on July 4, 1966, President Johnson was so opposed to the legislation he told his aide Bill Moyers, "I thought Moss was one of our boys, but the Justice Department tells me his goddamn bill will screw the Johnson Administration."
The FOIA law only applies to records held by the executive branch of the federal government. Congress and the courts are exempt from FOIA record requests. The legislation proved to be the necessary catalyst for states and cities to pass public record access laws of their own. Currently, every state has its own version of a FOIA law that allows for requests of state records.
In reflecting on the value of FOIA, Kansas City Star reporter Mike McGraw said, "Because of John Moss, going to my mailbox can be like Christmas morning. If I get a huge package from the government, I rip out the documents looking for clues about how my government works and—when it doesn't—why it doesn't. I constantly urge journalists to use the Freedom of Information Act, and use it often so we can keep the bureaucrats used to the idea that these records are ours —not theirs."
Moss' FOIA legislation and its subsequent adaptations are far from perfect. The law is filled with exemptions such as the government's right to withhold records related to national security and personal privacy. Yet, a saving grace of the FOIA law is that the burden of proof for such exemptions is on the government rather than the individual requesting the records; meaning if Democracy in Crisis is told by the Justice Department that records are being withheld for national security reasons and we take the Department to court, the DOJ will have to prove to a judge that the records should indeed be kept secret.
"Are we better off now than we were? Of course. Are we where we should be? No, by no means," Moss told Lemov.
"What we did was just a start. But there was nothing monumental that I wanted to do that I did not do. I didn't back away from many challenges. Sometimes you cannot compromise, you have to fight."
When I asked Lemov what Moss may have felt about the Trump administration, he replied, "In a word? Disappointed."
Moss, who died in 1997, equated government opacity with the origins of totalitarianism. In 1956 he said, "The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information there is made available, the greater will be the nation's security.''
The Washington Post recently added the phrase "Democracy Dies in Darkness" to its banner. Rep. Moss' battle to bring FOIA legislation to life may just end up being the most valuable tool we have in keeping away the darkness during the Trump administration.