Filing Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act Requests Tips and Links
After eyeball-bleeding-stay-up-till-3AM research session, you get an idea. The information you need to complete your project must be in the file cabinets of a government agency. Thinking back to all those History Channel documentaries that reference obtaining documents from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), your head hits your pillow in the sweet belief all of your research problems are solved…Unfortunately, as I found in researching Steinbeck: Citizen Spy, getting documentation via the FOIA isn't as easy as making a wish to your fairy research godmother. If you are wishing to make use of the FOIA, here are some tips that will aide your research.
The FOIA was established in 1966 by President Johnson as a mechanism that allows anyone to request information from the government. (The present mutations of the FOIA can be found at the Department of Justice website here) In working on Steinbeck Citizen Spy, I requested documents from the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The process has been a mind numbing morass of following the precise forms and procedures necessary for completing any FOIA request. Here are a collection of steps and tips to take when making your FOIA request that might make the process go a little smoother than my experiences have been.
1. Be Lucid and Well Reasoned. As much as I advocate using the FOIA process, please use the law responsibly. Sending requests to the FBI for information about where Jimmy Hoffa is buried will not yield you much except the wrath of a civil servant. Make a reasonable request that frames specifically what you're searching for. One gets more flies with honey as they say, and the FOIA process works on the same principles. If you're logical, thoughtful, and kind in your request letter the greater chance a south-side of appreciated and underpaid government worker is likely to go that extra mile to help you. Also spurious FOIA requests clog up Departmental resources for those wishing to make real requests. I'm not discouraging digging into weird topics, but be smart about how you go about it.
2. Go ugly early. Getting any information out of a government agency is going to take time. A FOIA request can take months, if not years, for a government agency to comply with. Spend a little time on the front end making sure the information you need isn't languishing somewhere outside of the FOIA universe. Many government agencies have "electronic reading rooms" where documents are already on the web. Check those out for the items you're looking for before wasting your time with an FOIA request.
3. Know who and what you're looking for. FOIA requests must be made to the specific agency that holds the documentation. There is not mystical FOIA clearinghouse the government has set up to track down your requests. Each government agency has FOIA procedures and a coordinator that handles requests. Before making your request, go to that agency's website to find out what that particular agency's FOIA requirements are. A FOIA request can be denied simply on the grounds that you didn't file your paperwork correctly. The search will also be easier to fulfill if you have a specific document number or a good reason to believe the agency holds the information.
4. Count the cost. The fulfillment of a FOIA request may not be free. The FOIA regulations allow for charges such as: research time, copying fees, and other miscellaneous charges related to your request. If there is a fee schedule available on your target agency's website, you can get a ball park cost on obtaining the information you requested. There are instances in which these fees may be waived or reduced. If you're a student, or requesting for an accredited academic entity, many times the fees can be reduced. If you're willing to get electronic, rather than paper copies, you can reduce your bill.
5. One thing at a time. When you're ready to make your request, do not lump all of the documentation you need in one request. If your request has 10 documents listed and you get a denial letter, there may be no way of knowing which specific document has been stymied. An agency may have only denied one document on the list which could shut down the entirety of your request. If you make separate FOIA requests, you at least know the status of each bit of documentation you need.
6. Sitting by the phone. After you have made your request, agencies must acknowledge they have received your request in 20 business days. If this requirement is not met, you have the legal right to sue the agency in a Federal court. Good luck with that tactic. (Recently the CIA won a FOIA suit on the release of two volumes of their Bay of Pigs History by stating the information could confuse the American public.) If your request has been acknowledged, there is no time limit in which the agency has to turn over documents. Play nice and stay in contact with your FOIA officer. Drop him/her a love letter ever so often checking on the status of your request. While agencies have a "first come first served" fulfillment requirement, a little sugar never hurts to keep the train moving.
7. The military is FUBAR. If you're trying to access records from any branch of the military there is an added layer of complexity. Each branches of the military has their own FOIA requesting offices. Dependent on what you are looking for, ascertaining which of these offices can be a challenge. At times you have to contact specific units or bases to send requests. Once again, do your homework and know exactly who and what you're trying to find before sending out FOIA requests. If you're just looking for a person's service records, click on this link at the NARA for information on how to go about that.
8. Try, try again. Your FOIA request can be denied for any number of reasons. A list of FOIA exemptions can be found at the Department of the InteriorOffice of the Inspector General's website. If you're rejected take heart, you can appeal the decision on any grounds. Your appeal will be taken to the agency's FOIA committee for review. Use any and all logical and legal reasons you can think of to appeal the denial. Do not be vague or inflammatory in your appeal. No one in the government will respond kindly to, "I have a right to know". Once again, be professional and play nice. This is also the time to ask questions of your FOIA officer. If your request has been rejected on grounds of a national security interest, ask how long it will be before the documents are declassified. The unsealing of documents varies from agency to agency. For example, the Department of Defense has a fairly regular interval for making documentation declassified while the CIA makes up the declassification rules as they go along. The CIA is also fond of the Glomar denial. In this denial you will receive a letter saying, "We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information you requested". Unless you have some compelling piece of evidence that proves the denying agency has the information, you've been shut down by the man.
9. The final frontier. If your appeal is denied, you can sue the agency in Federal court. Unless you're a lawyer, this could be a costly roll of the dice. If the information you're seeking is that important, speak with an attorney about the possibilities of a lawsuit. Once again, good luck with that route. Lawsuits can take years and thousands of dollars to pursue, so make sure the information is worth it.
The FOIA process is a daunting task, but the rewards can literally be a gold mine of information. Obtaining information from an FOIA request can be the unique piece of evidence that allows you to tell a story no one has ever heard.
Freedom of Information (FOIA) Links to United States Government Agencies and Departments
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Department of Defense (DoD)
Department of Energy (DOE)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Department of Interior
Department of Justice
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Director of National Intelligence (DNI)
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
Executive Branch (requests are handled by the NARA)
Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
Military Service Records
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
National Archives (NARA)
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA)
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
National Security Agency (NSA)
National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB)
Security and Exchange Commission (SEC)