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The father of FOI

John Moss, the driving force behind the Freedom of Information Act, is to be honored for lifetime achievement

By Ron Curran

FORMER CONGRESSIONAL REPRESENTATIVE and current San Francisco resident John Moss is one of the country's true pioneers in the fight for freedom-of-information rights. Moss, now 82 years old, took courageous moral and ethical stands during some of the country's most turbulent times, from the early cold war years through the debacle in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Those were decades when questioning government in any way was often considered tantamount to treason -- and years when his crusade to force sunshine on the secret cabals that run Washington was of utmost importance.

On Sept. 23 the man who wrote the landmark Freedom of Information Act will be rewarded with the California First Amendment Coalition's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Moss's many admirers include Ben Bagdikian, the legendary journalist and former dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

"During all those years when the national-security mania was so high, just about every government agency would use 'national security' as a blanket excuse to evade providing information," Bagdikian told the Bay Guardian this week. "But I'd go to John Moss's office and say, 'For god sakes, I need this info,' and John would write a letter and -- most important -- get a response.

"More reporters began seeking his help, and John Moss and his team became a conduit for this vast wealth of information that should have legitimately been public from the start but would have been kept secret had it not been for him. John Moss has done more than anyone in this century to make this government an open government."

But Moss remains humble about his place in history.

On Monday, we sat down in the Ellis Street apartment he shares with his wife of 60 years, Jean, to discuss his triumphs and frustrations dealing with Congresses and presidential administrations ranging from Harry Truman's to Jimmy Carter's. Moss looked fit in a blue sports shirt and faded jeans. His apartment walls feature the landscapes and artwork he has collected through the years, but one hallway displays the autographed photos, plaques, and other memorabilia of his remarkable quarter century as a Democrat representing Sacramento.

One photo shows Lyndon Johnson visiting the hospital after Moss suffered a stroke. Another has Moss trying (unsuccessfully) to stifle his disdain toward Johnson ally Everett Dirksen during a White House discussion on the Vietnam escalation. Then there are the framed letters from Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon explaining why the White House should be exempted from Moss's freedom-of-information investigations.

"As long as I can remember, I had an extremely strong interest in government, a great respect for representative government, and I wanted to see it work at its most efficient," said Moss, who worked his way through Sacramento public schools after his family moved from Utah when he was 10. "Once I got started on freedom-of-information issues I got some people's interest, then I got their attention. Then, I guess, I got their respect."

Moss worked in various capacities in Democratic Party politics before winning election to the California Assembly in 1948. In late 1952 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served until 1978.

Moss laughs when asked to recount what sparked his interest in FOI issues. "I can tell exactly the moment; it's very crystal-clear in my mind," he said. "I was a member of the first Congress under Republican control in many years, taking office in January 1953. I was given one of the less choice [committee] spots, on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee of the House. I had the really foolish idea that there was really no unimportant function on a committee, and there was an awful lot of talk about security risks in the federal government. I decided I wanted to find out what a 'security risk' was.

"But I had a hell of a time finding out. They would just brush me off. I realized a security risk was anybody they wanted to brand a security risk, so then I wanted to get some idea of how many 'them' there were, because if you read the papers you'd have thought there were thousands. I couldn't get that information either. No response, I was running into a stone wall. I said to myself, 'My god, if I can't get any information as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, what kind of information can the average person get?' And I made up my mind right then that, given the chance, I was going to try to fix that problem."

Moss got his chance in 1954 after Democrats regained control of the House. He was given a seat on the Committee on Government Operations, which had statutory power -- and subpoena power -- to examine the expense of every federal dollar.

"I decided then specifically to see why information was being suppressed," said Moss, who worked closely with administrative aide Sam Archibald. "I found that vast blocks of information were being treated almost as proprietary by people running our public institutions."

With a reputation for thoroughness of research and preparation, Moss soon went after the Department of Defense and other security-sensitive areas -- at a time when most politicians were superficially wrapping themselves in the flag to avoid any appearance of a leftist agenda.

Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Bay Guardian that the nature of the times in which Moss began winning freedom-of-information gains makes his work even more significant.

"From a 1990s perspective, John Moss's achievements are all the more remarkable because, at the very height of the cold war, he and his colleagues were able to persuade Congress to give the American people enforceable access to a truly substantial amount of unprecedented information about their government," Francke said. "Many people are frustrated by the way the government can still avoid full disclosure. But the more we learn about the government's obsession with secrecy over the past few decades makes it that much greater an achievement for Moss to have broken so much FOI ground."

Moss's work on a freedom-of-information subcommittee of Government Operations was followed by an even more powerful position on the merged Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee, which allowed him greater access to military information.

"The foreign-operations angle opened new opportunities, particularly involving the Vietnam War," Moss said. [Gen. William] Westmoreland was not very anxious to be open."

But Moss's most lasting legacy will remain the approval of the Freedom of Information Act. The law was signed by President Johnson July 4, 1966 -- but only after Johnson tried to attach an amendment to take the teeth out of the law.

"I found out that, though there are countless obstacles from people who benefit from the status quo, the government can be fixed," said Moss, who then offered both a word of caution and a rallying cry. "But I also learned that you can't just say that the job is done and walk away. There should be a very major effort right now to build on strengthening freedom-of-information rights. We gave them some tools that have made it easier for people to do some things. But like any other job, keeping the public government open to the public will never be complete."

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Revised: 10 Feb 2008 20:47:20 -0800.

Revised: 10 Feb 2008 20:47:20 -0800.