Woodward ’65 speaks on limits of FOIA

Almost 40 years after renowned journalist and author Bob Woodward ’65 reported on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency, he warned the audience at a Law School panel Thursday that secret government should be the nation’s biggest fear.

Woodward was one of four members on a panel to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the the Freedom of Information Act’s passage in Connecticut. He and the other panelists, including Connecticut Mirror editor Michael Regan and Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel of the state commission that administers FOIA, discussed the difficulties journalists face in obtaining information. The general consensus among the panel was that FOIA had not proven as useful as journalists had hoped.

A talk by Bob Woodward ’65 on freedom of press drew an audience of about 200 people.
A talk by Bob Woodward ’65 on freedom of press drew an audience of about 200 people.
Bob Woodward ’65 and other panelists discussed FOIA and government secrecy.
Bob Woodward ’65 and other panelists discussed FOIA and government secrecy.

Woodward started the discussion by sharing an anecdote about a FOIA request he made in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. Just last year, he said, he received heavily redacted copies of the documents he requested almost 30 years ago.

“Government is a closed shop,” Woodward said. “FOIA is one of the tools that should be used to open up government.”

Panelist Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press for over ten years, said FOIA has weakened considerably since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the federal FOIA act into law in 1966. It gained traction in the wake of the Watergate scandal, she said, when “there was a lot of headway for FOIA — and since then it’s all been cutting back.”

Security and privacy concerns are often used as excuses to restrict access to documents, she said, and the government has tried to expand existing restrictions to limit acess further. Obtaining documents about a living person can be “near impossible,” Dalglish said.

Woodward said he had to contend with security concerns from Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he tried to publish Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 assessment of the Afghanistan war, for he which he was the top commander. Gates told him the report’s publication could endanger troops fighting overseas, Woodward said.

He said Gates provided him with a copy of the report soon after — with “one page and several lines and words here and there” removed — which the Washington Post published. Ultimately, he said, Pentagon officials told him the report’s release was positive.

“They better understood the assessment because of the conversation” that the Washington Post provoked in publishing the report, Woodward said.

The talk drew an audience of about 200, many of whom were older community members or students from the Law School.

Stephen Gikow ’06 LAW ’11 is the student co-director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum, a team of Yale law students who work with clients on free speech and information issues. Gikow said he enjoyed the panel, but added that the panelists’ stories of problems with FOIA “[were] pretty much expected” based on his own legal experience.

(Gikow is a former city editor for the News.)

Elias Kleinbock ’14 said he enjoyed the event but would have like the panel to discuss “the more philosophical aspects of the debate.”

“Everyone agreed that the government was unnecessarily closed, and there was no talk of why that is,” Kleinbock said.

He also said that the event should have been advertised as a panel discussion — the pamphlets distributed at the event featured only Bob Woodward’s name and the discussion’s title, “A Discussion on Watergate, Open Government and Investigative Journalism.”

Woodward received the Walter Cronkite Award from the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government at a ceremony at the Omni Hotel Thursday evening. He also participated in a panel discussion at the Yale University Art Gallery earlier that day with Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75, the founder of the Yale Journalism Initiative, and Paul Needham ’11, a former editor-in-chief of the News.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Around 1977 I used the newly minted Freedom of Information Act to see if I had an FBI file on record. After all, I had been sort-of an activist for a federal grand jury investigation at Kent State of the murders which occurred there when I was a student in 1970.

    Sure enough, a two page typed report came back with names inked-out: Some anonymous student (I presume) was reporting on my activities at a public rally.

    I was so offended at this invasion of my privacy that I held a “Freedom of Information Act Party”
    at my New Haven apartment as a student at the Divinity School. I enclosed a copy of the report with the invitations.

    In 1970, the second night of the demonstrations at Kent State, when National Guardsmen took over campus, helicopters flew over Manchester Hall, the dorm in which I officiated as a counselor, searchlights raping the night sky.

    Most of the staff and many of the students were standing on its roof to watch the commotion the Guardsmen were creating in onlookers across Kent’s vas campus unnecessarily. When a helicopter’s searchlight scanned me, I took that opportunity to allow my kidneys to signify my respect for the military invasion of campus which was occurring.

    I wish that emblematic moment had made it into my FBI report. My kidneys spoke the truth.

    Apparently there weren’t any student informers on campus that early in the “Kent State” student unrest phenomenon which was about to grip the nation, and the world, two days later in a horrific act of military murder.