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
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
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."