The Freedom Of Information Act
The Little India guide to accessing public information.
How do you gain access to public documents under the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 is a federal law that gives any individual the right of access to government information. All documents with federal agencies in the executive branch are public documents, except those covered by nine exemptions and three exclusions.
The act applies to all 15 federal executive departments, such as Education, Homeland Security, Justice, as well as 73 other federal agencies, such as the Federal Communication Commission, Federal Reserve System. Congress, courts and the president are exempt. Any individual, including foreign citizens, as well as businesses may make requests under the act. The act often works in tandem with another law, the Privacy Act of 1974, which restricts personal information that might violate individual privacy, but at the same time enables individuals to secure information about themselves from the government. You can, for instance, under the Privacy Act and the FOIA secure your government records, including those with the FBI or the CIA.
If you are seeking information about yourself, you should make the request under both the FOIA and Privacy Act, because different information is available or exempt under the two acts. If you are seeking information on anything or anyone else, your claim should be made under the FOIA alone.
Agencies have established a fee schedule for duplicating documents, but the fees are normally waived for simple noncommercial requests that require less than two hours of search time and fewer than 100 copied pages. In addition, the act permits waiver of fees for journalists and scholars if the information requested will be publicly disseminated and “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.” Public-interest groups, nonprofit organizations and individuals seeking information for personal use are assessed fees for search and duplication. You can request an agency to estimate those costs before they execute your request, however.
You initiate a FOIA request by filing a written request with the agency in possession of the information you are seeking. The Department of Justice website (http://www.usdoj.gov/oip/foi-act.htm) maintains links to FOIA websites of all federal agencies as well as FOIA contacts at them, including address, telephone number and email address. They also have a counseling service (Tel: 202-514-3642) to assist individuals in identifying the appropriate contact for their request.
Before you submit your request, you might want to check whether the agency’s website already has the information you are seeking in the electronic readings rooms on their website. The FBI and CIA, for instance, have public records on the most popular requests on famous people, such as UFOs, Martin Luther King, etc.
Agencies are only required to provide you their existing records, not compile new information. All existing records, except those specifically exempt by law are public documents and have to be made available to the public. However, the following records are exempted from public disclosure:
1. properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy;
The FOIA requires agencies to segregate and provide requested information after deleting exempt information if a record has both public and exempt information.
Your written request for documents should cite the FOIA and supply as much specific detail as possible about the information you are seeking, which well help reduce the time and serve to narrow your request. Include your contact details, such as your name, address, telephone number and email.
You should request a waiver or reduction of fees on the grounds that disclosure of the information is in the public interest, unless you are a commercial entity. In any event, you should indicate whether you are willing to pay any fees if your waiver is denied. You can specify that you are willing to pay fees up to a certain amount and/or request the agency to contact you with a cost estimate of fees.
Agencies typically have 20 working days to respond to your request, but in some circumstances if they need longer processing time, they will notify you in writing of the extension.
The act provides for both administrative and judicial appeals if a request is denied. If an agency refuses to disclose all or part of the information, or does not respond within 20 working days to a written FOIA request, you may appeal to the agency’s FOIA appeals officer. The administrative appeal process is usually fairly simple and may be initiated with a written request to the agency head within 30 to 60 days of the denial. Sample appeal letters are available on the Little India website. You may avoid the agency appeal and go directly to court if the agency does not respond within the required time period. However, the judicial process is more complex, although it can be, and often has been, initiated by individuals without a lawyer.
All states have similar freedom of information laws permitting public access of state documents and your FOI requests may be submitted to state agencies citing these state laws. If you do not know the name of the specific state statute, simply say the request is made under the state freedom of information laws.