Environmental science, traveling, and the sociology of the unraveling American dream.


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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Have you FOIA'd your government today?

The Citizen's Guide To Using The Freedom Of Information Act

No special expertise is required. Using the Freedom of Information
Act and the Privacy Act is as simple as writing a letter. This
Citizen's Guide explains the essentials.

Here's a fun game for those following along at home: FOIA time! The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), instituted in 1966, gives citizens access to records held by the United States Federal Government. Needless to say, there are restrictions on exactly which records citizens are allowed to access -- records of national security, memos about lunch time at Federal agencies, and some geologic maps and drilling reports are out -- but there's still quite a bit of interesting info potentially available, as with the recent release of torture memos, which was done under FOIA. And the fun's not limited to the Federal government -- all state governments and some local municipalities have their own versions of FOIA in place.

Learning how you can get the records you're looking for is a matter of research, which is far more interesting than it sounds. Most people thinking of research think of firing up Google, or a trip to the library for a book. Hardcore, competitive researching -- the XGame version of research, one might say -- has about as much in common with options like those as writing a book has to do with writing a high school essay on Summer Vacation Time Was Fun or If Jesus Were My Teammate. Real research is about being sneaky, working around roadblocks, tracking down references out of airy nothing. It's more an art than a skill, and doing research under FOIA is no exception. The first question on the list: work out which agency(s) may have the records. Every agency has its own section for dealing with FOIA requests, and handles them differently. Once you've identified where your records may be you get to the fun bit: writing a request for records such that it positively identifies the records you're looking for, without being so broad as to be rejected for impracticality or so specific as to rule your records out. This is an artform, relying as much on intuition as it does on prior knowledge -- but the Citizen's Guide explains this all far better than I can.

In today's world, knowledge is power. You have a right to know what your government is doing on your behalf. FOIA is law. Unfortunately, FOIA doesn't work perfectly -- requests get backlogged, things get lost, reasonable requests and subsequent appeals are denied, and it often seems to require far too much litigation. But in the end? We have the right to interrogate our government, to find out what they're doing, the right to pay attention. People can and will hide records down a flight of creaky basement steps in a locked room with a sign on the door saying Beware Of Leopard. The thing to remember is that we have the right to unlock that door -- if we can just work out how to find it.

Next time: More FOIA-related fun with J. Edgar Hoover and little green men.