Citizens in a democracy should have a right to know what their government is doing on their behalf.
For the last 50 years, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has allowed Americans and others to request records from the federal government and compelled federal agencies to supply them.
Whether you’re a journalist, activist, researcher or a regular person who wants to know more about the government or its actions, you can submit a request under FOIA. You don’t even have to be a U.S. citizen to make a FOIA request.
Every U.S. government agency has its own FOIA office, but the Office of Information Policy in the Department of Justice oversees all agencies’ compliance with FOIA and trains personnel throughout the government on how to answer FOIA requests. “Last year alone we had nearly 800,000 requests across the federal government,” said Melanie Ann Pustay, who directs the Office of Information Policy. “It’s a very popular statute in America.”
Journalists often use Freedom of Information Act requests in their reporting, but a recent study shows reporters’ requests only make up 7.5 percent of FOIA requests. Businesses, law firms and private citizens make up the majority of requesters.
“No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.” ~President Lyndon Johnson, after signing the Freedom of Information Act in 1966.
Can you get every single government record you request? Not always. There is information that is not available through FOIA because its release would threaten national security or violate citizens’ right to privacy. But these are a small minority, and U.S. courts have vigorously supported the right of the public to access the vast majority of records.
Some documents stay classified for a very long time. In the last few years, the CIA has declassified its last documents related to World War I, including a formula for disappearing ink.
FOIA’s greatest challenge has been the explosion of data in the digital age. The records of government that used to be stored in filing cabinets are now stored in servers spread across the globe in the form of emails, social-media postings and cloud-based collaboration tools.
Email alone is responsible for a large part of the increase in records, Pustay said. “It has increased over time as email use has become so embedded in how all of us do our business,” she said. Since emails are sent to multiple recipients and often contain long chains of correspondence, they exponentially increase the number and length of total records on a subject.
One way the government has addressed this challenge is by releasing many records even if they have not been requested. Every agency has its own FOIA website to which it posts records it anticipates will be of interest. And agencies are required by law, Pustay says, to post any record that has been requested three times.
“It is a significant expenditure of government resources and government personnel,” Pustay said. “But I think that the United States has demonstrated a strong commitment to the ideals of transparency through FOIA.”
Sample FOIA records you can read now
- Department of Homeland Security records on use of premium air travel.
- Department of Homeland Security records related to procurement awards.
- CIA records on American prisoners of war and missing in action.
- CIA records on UFOs (unidentified flying objects).
How to make a request under FOIA
- Go to the FOIA site’s search page to find out if the information you want is already publicly available.
- Find the FOIA information on the government agency to whom you want to make a request.
- Write a letter describing the information you’re requesting or complete the agency’s online FOIA request form.