By Newley Purnell March 19, 2013
For more than 40 years, the Freedom of Information Act has helped business journalists unearth government documents and break news. But today, few reporters take full advantage of it. Some are discouraged by what they assume is a complicated submission process. Others are unaware the act even exists, let alone that it can serve their reporting.
The truth is that a FOIA request is remarkably simple, and more people are making them than ever before. In fiscal 2012, federal agencies received more than 651,000 FOIA requests, a nine percent increase from fiscal 2008, according to government data. Although waiting times can be lengthy and some requests may yield little of much use, Washington accommodates the majority of FOIA requests. Agencies provided full or partial information for more than ninety percent of the requests it processed last year.
With the proper preparation, ample persistence, and plenty of patience, reporters can obtain government documents that will bolster their ability to provide public interest information.
For example, FOIA requests led to Bloomberg News’s 2011 coverage that revealed the true extent of the Federal Reserve’s loans to banks and other firms during the financial crisis. And The Wall Street Journal that year used the Freedom of Information Act to gain insight into how corporate titans use their private aircraft.
The Freedom of Information Act was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. The law states that all people, regardless of American citizenship, have the right to U.S. federal agencies’ records. According to the Supreme Court, the law is designed to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”
To be sure, there have always been some limits to the kind of information that can be obtained. Today, although the number of FOIA requests has risen since the Bush administration, fewer are being granted. At the same time, journalists complain that FOIA requests often take so long for the government to complete, if they’re completed at all, that the law has lost some of its usefulness.
However, requesters shouldn’t be deterred by possible delays. As the old adage goes, “don’t ask, don’t get.” Here’s a guide to getting the most out of FOIA requests:
You must submit your request to a specific governmental agency. One approach is to consider the focus of your story and then assess which government body might have the most relevant information.
A good starting point is FOIA.gov, a Department of Justice website that provides information on individual agencies, their respective offices, and contact details for each agency’s FOIA officials. Journalists who are requesting information from the Department of Justice but are unsure about which division to contact can call the agency’s FOIA requester service center at (301) 583-7354. The DOJ might also be able to provide information about other government agencies to contact.
Keep in mind that some agencies receive more requests than others, and that could affect response times. In fiscal year 2012, the top five agencies receiving FOIA requests were the Department of Homeland Security (190,589 requests); the Department of Justice, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (69,456 requests); the Department of Health and Human Services (68,467 requests); the Department of Defense (66,078); and the Social Security Administration (31,329 requests). On the other hand, the African Development Foundation received just four FOIA requests last year.
FOIA request letters typically contain just a few basic components:
• The name and contact details of the agency’s FOIA official
• The requester’s name and contact information, including mailing address
• A stipulation that you’re a journalist submitting a FOIA request
• Specific details about the information you’re requesting
The Arlington, Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an online FOIA letter generator that can be used to create and personalize requests. And many agencies provide sample FOIA request letters on their websites. The FBI, for example, provides a sample letter. You can also simply search Google for the agency’s name followed by “FOIA template,” such as “CIA FOIA template.”
Again, be sure to address the letter to the agency’s appropriate FOIA official, and note that since you are a member of the news media seeking information in the public interest, search fees should be waived. You can also specify that, if charges are incurred for some reason, you would like to be notified if such costs exceed a certain amount, like $25 or $50. Most agencies allow FOIA request letters to be submitted via an online form or email.
Although agencies are required by law to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days, the government says that the sheer number and complexity of submissions often makes meeting this deadline difficult. Response times vary by agency, with some replying within a week or two and other taking much longer, perhaps years.
When agencies cannot respond to requests within 20 working days, such requests are considered “backlogged.” At the end of fiscal year 2012, there were 71,790 backlogged requests throughout all agencies. This represents 11 percent of the requests received during the year. And some agencies have yet to resolve some requests made years ago. The National Archives and Records Administration has had a request pending for more than 13 years. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency have had requests pending for over 11 years.
Assume that if your requests are able to be met, they’ll take several months to complete. Consider making your FOIA requests part of your early reporting, rather than waiting until you’re in the midst of the story.
Requesters should receive a letter from agencies after filing FOIA requests providing tracking numbers for their queries. Keep these numbers on hand, as they will be useful in following up on the request’s status.
A simple spreadsheet can help organize FOIA-related information (Click here for example). The spreadsheet contains columns for the agency, documents requested, tracking number, FOIA officials, their responses, etc.
One promising online resource worth watching is FOIAMachine.org, a nonprofit site started by a team of journalists and others. The free service, which is funded by the John S. Knight Foundation and the Center for Investigative Reporting, is designed to help people make and track FOIA requests.
Sometimes, government agencies say FOIA requests are subject to various exemptions. Indeed, there are nine such exemptions that allow the government to withhold information. These exceptions include requests pertaining to issues of national security, an agency’s personnel matters, businesses’ trade secrets or confidential information, and more.
If an agency declares that requested material is exempt from FOIA requests, appeals are still possible. In some cases, the agency is obliged to provide the information, but with the portions deemed sensitive redacted. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a guide to FOIA appeals organized by exemption.
Journalists should remember that they have every right to seek government documents. When it comes to obtaining information from Washington for the public interest, the law is squarely on the side of citizens.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 19th, 2013 at 4:45 am. It is filed under Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with Bloomberg, corporations, federal reserve, FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, government, WSJ. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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