On this day in 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Now, quoting from the National Security Archive:

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law ensuring public access to U.S. government records. FOIA carries a presumption of disclosure; the burden is on the government – not the public – to substantiate why information may not be released. Upon written request, agencies of the United States government are required to disclose those records, unless they can be lawfully withheld from disclosure under one of nine specific exemptions in the FOIA. This right of access is ultimately enforceable in federal court.

LBJ only reluctantly signed the law. He held no signing ceremony, which was unusual, given that he typically enjoyed pageantry almost as much as patronage. And he issued a signing statement (pdf) that undercut FOIA. I suppose it’s not surprising that the president wasn’t a huge fan of a law that offered the American people unprecedented access to government documents. More surprising? Republican Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (pdf) was on the side of the angels, championing FOIA — though only in the wake of LBJ’s landslide in the 1964 election. Approximately a decade later, Rumsfeld and his buddy, Dick Cheney, would spearhead the Ford administration’s losing effort to contain FOIA’s growth.

If Rumsfeld’s support for the bill was politically motivated, the real hero of the story was a Congressman from Sacramento, John Moss. Moss had led hearings in the mid 1950s on the perils of government secrecy. Ten years after that, in 1965, he sponsored the FOIA bill. At the time, Moss struggled against every agency in the federal apparatus, including the Department of Justice, which threatened that the Supreme Court would strike down FOIA (pdf) even if it somehow became law.

Despite the executive branch’s misgivings and roadblocks set up by entrenched bureaucratic interests, the Senate passed its version of Moss’s bill in the spring of 1966. The Johnson administration — nudged by a young press secretary named Bill Moyers — then began looking for ways to hop on the bandwagon before it completely filled. White House counsel Milton Semer, for example, suggested that LBJ could spin FOIA as an effort to cut through the red tape (pdf) in Washington. The Justice Department, meanwhile, worked directly with Moss, watering down his bill by exempting many different kinds of documents from FOIA and offering “broader protection for the internal working papers of executive agencies.”

The House voted on Moss’s bill on June 20, passing it unanimously. Johnson then signed FOIA into law on this day in 1966. Years later, Bill Moyers recalled:

I knew that LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing… He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House…He relented and signed ‘the damned thing,’ as he called it (I’m paraphrasing what he actually said …).

So, on Independence Day, we should celebrate our freedom to gather information about the government, even as the government gathers information about us.