Use the Freedom of Information Act

To really keep your government accountable, sometimes you have to get inside the belly of the beast and use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain government records. Here are a few things to know about how to make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests:

The federal Freedom of Information Act covers only the federal government. Each state government has its own Freedom of Information Act law. Make sure you know the law governing the jurisdiction from which you are making the request.

You don’t need to be a citizen to make a FOIA request of the federal government. Any individual can make a request. Nor do you need to tell the government why you are asking for records. That’s none of the government’s business. However, if you want to request a waiver of fees or ask for an expedited search, you may need to convince the agency that your request is in the public interest. The presumption of the law is that the government must produce the records, unless the requested information fits an exception specified by the law.

All executive branch agencies, including the Executive Office of the President and independent agencies are covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Congress, however, is not. The personal staff of the President is also exempted.

An effective FOIA request should contain a reasonably accurate description of the records sought and clearly state contact info for clarification. In order to craft a really effective request, you may need to do a little research to know the statutes that govern the agency, as well as the agency’s own published regulations.

Always request that fees be waived in your initial request. In order to get fees waived, you may need to convince the agency that the information you seek is in the public interest. For noncommercial requests, there are no fees for the first two hours of search time and 100 pages of duplication. Agencies have 20 days to respond to a request from the time the request is received. Agencies may not charge fees when they take longer than 20 days to respond.

FOIA requires agencies to divulge records that they create and are under their control, but does not require them to conduct new research in order to respond to your request. Records covered include paper, tapes, digital files, photos, videos, and electronic records.

Be prepared to clarify you request to the agency’s reviewer, and if you believe the agency is not being responsive to your request, you can also take them to court. For assistance with a FOIA request, you can contact the nonprofit group Judicial Watch. For more details on FOIA, see Judicial Watch’s “Freedom of Information Act and Open Records Law Handbook.”