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FOIA Tip No. 1 — Research What is Out There

October 27, 2009

The National Security Archive is one of the foremost users of the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  In our nearly-25 year existence, the Archive has filed a whopping 36,000 FOIA requests to federal agencies, nearly 2000 requests last year alone.  We get thousands of pages of previously secret government documents every year, many of which we publish on our web site and in various publications.  We have learned how the FOIA system works (and in some cases, doesn’t work), and we regularly share our expertise with students, journalists, international visitors, members of Congress, and even federal agency employees.  Earlier this year, we published a brand new guide aimed at helping the public make FOIA work for them.  You can download the full guide, Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone, from our web site.

In this space, we will be featuring a series of FOIA tips and tricks that we at the Archive have developed over the years.  Some of these tips are in the guide, but if you are looking for a quick fix, this is a great place to start.

Speaking of a great place to start, how do you get started if you want to file a FOIA request?  The number one tip we give people about filing FOIA requests is:  make sure you need to file a FOIA request!  There are millions of pages of government information published on agency web sites, and the Obama administration has ramped up efforts to make digital information and data available to the public online.  FOIA requests can be very effective, but there are a lot of kinks in the process and it can take months, years, even decades to get an answer.  There’s no need to file a request for information if you can download it instantly from a web site.

Each agency maintains an electronic reading room as part of its FOIA web site, and agencies are required to post certain types of information whether or not anyone requests that information.  (There’s lots of information on these sites, even if the agencies don’t post everything they are supposed to, according to our 2007 study File Not Found: Agencies Violate Law on Online Information.) The Department of Justice maintains a list of links to agency FOIA sites that you can use as a starting point.  In addition, agencies have lots of other great information elsewhere on their web sites and on government-wide sites like data.gov and recovery.gov.  A lot of historical information (more than 25 years old) is available in paper form or online from the National Archives and Records Administration.

If you can’t find the information you are looking for online, it may be time to file a FOIA request.  But before you file, make sure to do some basic research about which agency or office might have the information.  Sending your request to the right place at the beginning and including all of the necessary information will help to get a quicker response, but it will probably still take a while, so settle in and prepare for a long wait.  (More on that in a later post.)  For more tips on preparing to file your FOIA request, check out Chapter 2 of Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone.

Check back for more great FOIA tips on Unredacted.

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