Table of contents
Eligibility & costs to use FOIA
How to get started
can, can’t be obtained through FOIA
How to file a FOIA
FOIA request processing time
Common pitfalls & how to avoid them
Filing an administrative appeal
a judicial appeal
FOIA report cards:
How to request records from state
Significant FOIA victories
The Freedom of Information Act is
the federal law, enacted in 1966, that makes government information accessible
to the people. The law is based on the presumption that individuals have a right
to know what their government is up to and that government agencies have a duty
to provide full disclosure of all records that are not specifically and
FOIA applies to all 15 departments (Education, Homeland Security, etc.) and
73 other federal agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Reserve
System) in the executive branch of the U.S. government. It does not apply to the
president, Congress or the courts. It does not apply to state governments
(though each of the 50 states has its own freedom-of-information laws, as do
many cities). (See
Freedom of Information Act federal statute.)
The act lays out what kinds of information agencies must publish as a matter
of course — both in print and, thanks to a 1996 amendment, the Electronic
Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA), electronically on their Web sites. It also
grants individuals the right to request copies of records not normally prepared
for public distribution, and sets standards for determining which records must
be made available.
It specifies what kinds of records may be withheld from disclosure by agency
discretion through its nine exemptions and three exclusions.
FOIA outlines the procedures individuals should follow for requesting records
and for appealing the decision if information is denied. It also establishes the
right to judicial remedies if an agency does not comply with the law.
The Privacy Act
Act of 1974 works in tandem with FOIA to regulate federal agency records
about individuals, restricting the disclosure of personal information that might
violate privacy while allowing individuals access to records about
Because the two acts overlap but have different exemptions, information may
be released under one while being exempt from disclosure under the other.
When seeking information about oneself, an individual should file a request
citing both acts in order to get the fullest possible disclosure. A requester
seeking information that is not exclusively about himself or herself should cite
FOIA only. Agencies generally treat Privacy Act requests the same as FOIA
& Resources in this section for a variety of helpful guides and other
information on FOIA.)
Eligibility & costs to use FOIA
anywhere, for any reason can request information from the government under FOIA.
That includes individuals (including foreign citizens), partnerships,
corporations, associations, and domestic or foreign governments (with newly
enacted exceptions). However, the act does assign requesters to different
categories in order to determine fees and fee waivers. Each agency sets its own
The first category of requester includes representatives of the news media;
educational institutions; and noncommercial scientific institutions. This type
of requester pays only standard document-duplication charges. Journalists,
authors and scholars are also the requesters most normally eligible for a fee
waiver, if the information they request is "likely to contribute significantly
to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government," and
if they have the ability to disseminate that information to the public.
The second category includes public-interest groups; nonprofit organizations;
and individuals seeking information for personal use. These requesters are
assessed fees for document duplication and for the time it takes to carry out
The final category involves requests made for commercial use, or for
"profit-making activities." These requesters are subject to fees for document
duplication and search time as well as the time required to review the documents
to determine if any portion of them is exempt from disclosure.
No fee is charged for noncommercial requests that are relatively simple —
requiring less than two hours' search time and fewer than 100 copied pages.
How to get started
The first step in
acquiring information from the government is to determine which department or
agency holds the information you seek. There is no centralized office that
processes or coordinates Freedom of Information requests, so the requester must
go directly to the appropriate agency. However, the Department of Justice does
act as a centralized source for information about FOIA and for locating all
federal government departments and agencies.
- As noted earlier, if you are seeking information about yourself, you should
file a request citing both the Privacy Act and the FOIA in order to get the
fullest possible disclosure. If you seek information that is not exclusively
about yourself, you should cite FOIA only.
- Each federal agency has its own FOIA Web site that includes a guide to
filing requests with that agency as well as other FOIA-related information and
its annual compliance report. The Department of Justice keeps updated links to all other
federal agencies' FOIA Web sites.
- The DOJ also keeps an updated list of principal
FOIA contacts at all federal agencies, whom you can write, phone or e-mail
directly to verify jurisdiction over information.
- The DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy has a FOIA counseling service
that answers general questions and helps with determining which agency to
approach. Its number is 202/514-3642.
- The Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services
Administration also answers questions about FOIA, advertising that it is
"especially prepared to help you find the right agency, the right office and the
right address." Phone 800/333-4636 or e-mail them your questions from this site.
- Before you send your request, you should locate two separate offices within
the agency that has what you're looking for: the agency's FOIA office, and the
specific office within the agency that keeps the particular records you want.
P.J. Kaufman, writing in the American Bar Association's The Young Lawyer
(January 2005), notes: "Send your request to the [agency's] FOIA office, and be
sure to identify the office you think maintains the records you seek." If the
agency's FOIA office doesn't have to figure out which office has your requested
records, it may save a lot of time.
- The Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over most products
and provides a helpful guide to the
products (and some services) that other agencies oversee.
- If it's still unclear which agency has the information you seek, it may be a
good idea to file your request with more than one applicable agency.
After you've located the appropriate agency, the next step is to determine if
the information you're seeking is already available on that agency's Web site.
In addition to their various publications and reports, all agencies publish a
certain amount of information prescribed by FOIA and make it available both in
print in their reading rooms and in electronic form on their Web site "reading
This information includes: (1) descriptions of agency organization and office
addresses; (2) statements of the general course and method of agency operation;
(3) rules of procedure and descriptions of forms; (4) substantive rules of
general applicability and general policy statements; (5) final opinions made in
the adjudication of cases; (6) statements of policy and interpretations adopted
by an agency, but not published in the Federal Register; and (7)
administrative staff manuals that affect the public.
FOIA also specifies that agencies publish in their reading rooms copies of
records released in response to FOIA requests that have been or will likely be
the subject of additional requests, as well as an index of those previous FOIA
Even if you do not find the information you are looking for in the reading
rooms, the frequently requested records at many agencies can make for
interesting reading. (For example, the FBI's reading room includes, in the
Famous Persons category, scanned copies of original documents about everyone
from Albert Einstein to Elvis Presley to John Wayne. The Unidentified Flying
Objects category includes 1,600 pages of government documents.)
Other guides to assist your search:
Information that can, can't be obtained through
Most agencies' FOIA Web sites have an index to the information
published there and give an idea of what kinds of additional information can be
requested through FOIA.
For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission offers this guide:
"The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) maintains public and
non-public records. Public records, such as registration statements and reports
filed by regulated companies and individuals, SEC decisions and releases, staff
manuals, no-action and interpretive letters, and public comments on proposed
rules, are available through the Public Reference facilities located at SEC
Headquarters (Conventional and
Electronic Reading Rooms). You need not send a FOIA request to obtain public
records. A FOIA request is required to obtain non-public records, such as
records compiled in investigations, consumer complaints, and staff comment
letters. We will release non-public records, unless the record is protected by
one of nine FOIA exemptions. If
we can reasonably segregate or delete exempt information from a requested
record, we will release to you the rest of the record."
The Environmental Protection Agency, like all other agencies, points out
that FOIA does not require it to release all records. It summarizes the FOIA
exemptions as follows:
"All agency records must be made available to the public under the
FOIA, except for records which are: 1. properly classified as secret in the
interest of national defense or foreign policy; 2. related solely to internal
personnel rules and practices; 3. specifically made confidential by other
statutes; 4. trade secrets and commercial or financial information which is
obtained from a person and is privileged or confidential; 5. inter-agency or
intra-agency memoranda or letters, except under certain circumstances; 6.
personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would
constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; 7. records or
information compiled for law enforcement purposes, the release of which (a)
could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, (b)
would deprive a person of a right to a fair [trial] or impartial adjudication,
(c) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of
personal privacy, (d) could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a
confidential source, (e) would disclose investigative techniques, and/or (f)
could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any
individual; 8. information contained in or related to certain examination,
operating, or condition reports concerning financial institutions; 9. certain
information concerning gas or oil wells."
FOIA further states that "any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall
be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions
which are exempt."
For a discussion of current case-law interpretations of the exemptions, see
the 2009 "Justice Department
Guide to the Freedom of Information Act."
Each federal agency compiles an annual report detailing its compliance with
FOIA that lists the basis for each request denied during the year. (The DOJ
keeps all departments' and
agencies' annual reports on its Web site.)
Most requests denied either fully or partially fall under one of the nine
exemptions in the act.
For example, the Department of Homeland Security's FY 2003 report stated:
"The most common reasons reported by DHS components for not granting
requests were: 1) the records were exempt from release under FOIA Exemption 6
(personal records whose release would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of
personal privacy); 2) the records were exempt from release under FOIA Exemption
7C (records compiled for law enforcement purposes whose release could reasonably
be expected to invade personal privacy); and the records were exempt from
release under FOIA Exemption 5 (inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or
The DHS also cited Exemption 3 (a separate federal statute prohibiting the
disclosure of a certain type of information) and listed the other statutes it
relied on to withhold records, including 8 U.S.C. 1160(B)(6) Information on
Special Agricultural workers and 8 U.S.C. 1304(B) Registration of Aliens.
Though the nine exemptions allow agencies to withhold certain information,
they do not require that they do so. Above all, FOIA mandates that agencies
provide the fullest possible disclosure of information. So even if information
qualifies under an exemption, the agency may use its discretion to release it if
disclosure would not cause any foreseeable harm.
That goes for classified documents as well, which may be requested under
FOIA, obliging the agency to review them to determine if they still require
protection. Alternatively, one can make a formal request to have information
declassified. (See "FOIA report card — classification
Important: FOIA specifies that requests must be for existing records.
Agencies are not required to collect new information, create new records, do new
research or analyze information.
How to file a FOIA request
The procedure for
filing a request for information is straightforward, and involves simply writing
a letter to the appropriate agency including the most precise detail possible
about the information you are seeking. There are many online sources with
letter-writing guides, including each agency's FOIA Web site.
The Department of Transportation, for example, offers this basic
"Your request must be in writing and include the following
- Provide your name, address and telephone number. Also, if you have an email
address, please provide it, so that we can contact you if we have questions
about your request.
- Specify whether you are making an FOIA or PA request.
- Provide as much detail as possible about the records you seek. Indicate
whether you are requesting the information in a form or format other than paper.
- State your willingness to pay any fees, and how much you are willing to pay
as advance authorization.
If you are mailing the request, please mark prominently on the envelope 'FOIA
The Internal Revenue Service offers these helpful hints:
"FOIA requires that each request reasonably describe the records
being sought. Each request must be specific enough to permit an employee of the
IRS to reasonably ascertain exactly what records are being requested and locate
them. Many people include their telephone number with their requests. Some
questions about the scope of a request can be resolved quickly when an IRS
Disclosure Officer can call the requester to clarify the request. Sometimes, IRS
will help a requester identify a specific document that contains the information
being sought. Requesters should make requests as specific as possible. If a
particular document is required, it should be identified precisely, preferably
by date and title. However, a request does not always have to be that specific.
A requester who cannot identify a specific record should clearly explain his or
her needs. A requester should make sure, however, that a request is broad enough
to include all desired information, but narrow enough to be
The Committee on Government Reform's "Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of
Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records"
includes this sample
FOIA request letter in the appendix:
Agency Head [or Freedom of Information Act Officer]
Address of Agency
City, State, Zip Code
Re: Freedom of
Information Act Request
Dear ------ :
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I
request that a copy of the following documents [or documents containing the
following information] be provided to me: [identify the documents or information
as specifically as possible].
In order to help to determine my status for purposes of determining the
applicability of any fees, you should know that I am [insert a suitable
description of the requester and the purpose of the request. Sample requester
descriptions: a representative of the news media affiliated with the ------
newspaper (magazine, television station, etc.), and this request is made as part
of news gathering and not for a commercial use. affiliated with an educational
or noncommercial scientific institution, and this request is made for a
scholarly or scientific purpose and not for a commercial use. an individual
seeking information for personal use and not for a commercial use. affiliated
with a private corporation and am seeking information for use in the company's
[Optional] I am willing to pay fees for this request up to a maximum of
$----. If you estimate that the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me
[Optional] I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the
requested information to me is in the public interest because it is likely to
contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities
of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. [Include
specific details, including how the requested information will be disseminated
by the requester for public benefit.]
[Optional] I request that the information I seek be provided in electronic
format, and I would like to receive it on a personal computer disk [or a
[Optional] I ask that my request receive expedited processing because ------.
[Include specific details concerning your ''compelling need,'' such as being
someone ''primarily engaged in disseminating information'' and specifics
concerning your ''urgency to inform the public concerning actual or alleged
Federal Government activity.'']
[Optional] I also include a telephone number at which I can be contacted
during the hours of -----, if necessary, to discuss any aspect of my request.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
City, State, Zip Code
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a user-friendly letter generator on its
Web site. It prompts you for all relevant information about your request and
drafts the letter for you, then allows you to edit it before saving or printing.
You must e-mail or mail it yourself.
FOIA request-processing time
Once the right agency
(or component of an agency) has received a complete and perfected request, it
has 20 working days to respond with its determination of whether to grant the
request. If information is denied in full or in part, the agency must give the
reasons for the denial by this deadline. If granted, it does not have to deliver
the applicable documents within the timeframe, but must do so promptly
Many times agencies cannot meet these time limits. The 2007 "Justice Department Guide
to the Freedom of Information Act" gets more specific about the realities of
"In 'unusual circumstances,' an agency can extend the twenty-day
time limit for processing a FOIA request if it tells the requester in writing
why it needs the extension and when it will make a determination on the request.
The FOIA defines 'unusual circumstances' as: (1) the need to search for and
collect records from separate offices; (2) the need to examine a voluminous
amount of records required by the request; and (3) the need to consult with
another agency or agency component. If the required extension exceeds ten days,
the agency must allow the requester an opportunity to modify his or her request,
or to arrange for an alternative time frame for completion of the agency's
"Agencies have adopted the court-sanctioned practice of generally handling
backlogged FOIA requests on a 'first-in, first-out' basis. The Electronic FOIA
amendments expressly authorized agencies to promulgate regulations providing for
'multitrack processing' of their FOIA requests — which allows agencies to
process requests on a first-in, first-out basis within each track, but also
permits them to respond to relatively simple requests more quickly than requests
involving complex and/or voluminous records."
The DOJ's own agency guide to FOIA elaborates on its efforts to meet the
"Some components of the Justice Department, such as the FBI and
DEA, receive thousands of requests each year. Many of these requests require a
line-by-line review of hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents.
Although the Justice Department makes every effort to respond to FOIA requests
as quickly as possible, in some cases it simply cannot do so within the
specified time period. This may be due either to the size of the request or to
the fact that the component has a backlog of previously received requests that
are awaiting processing."
Agencies sometimes expedite urgent requests if a "compelling need" is met.
There may be a compelling need if failure to obtain the records quickly "could
reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety
of an individual"; or, if the requester is a "person primarily engaged in
disseminating information" and demonstrates an "urgency to inform the public
concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity." At its discretion, an
agency may grant expedited treatment under additional circumstances as well.
Contact the agency's FOIA officer to inquire about the qualifications for
(See "FOIA report card — annual agency FOIA reports"
below for information on actual median response times by agency.)
Common pitfalls & how to avoid them
federal agency compiles an annual report detailing its compliance with FOIA. The
report lists the basis for each request denied during the year. (The DOJ keeps
all departments' and agencies'
annual reports on its Web site.)
Most requests either fully or partially denied fall under one of the nine
exemptions in the act. (See "Information that can, can't be
obtained through FOIA," above.) However, there are other reasons for
nondisclosure that have to do with the request process itself.
The annual reports include these categories of reasons for nondisclosure (in
addition to the exemptions):
- No records.
- Request withdrawn.
- Records not reasonably described.
- Not a proper FOIA/Privacy Act request for some other reason.
- Not an agency record.
- Duplicate request.
- Fee-related reason.
- Other, which may include:
- Administratively closed after no response to "Still interested?" letter
(written by agency to requester).
- Available from other source.
- Failure to perfect request.
- Unable to locate requester.
FOIA specifies that requests must be for existing records. Agencies are not
required to collect new information, create new records, do new research or
analyze information. Therefore, it's helpful to know what form the agency keeps
its records in. Agencies are supposed to provide information about their
record-keeping systems on their FOIA Web sites.
The Justice Department, for example, in a guide called "Descriptions of Major
Information Systems," describes in detail how it organizes the information it
gathers by component (e.g., Drug Enforcement Administration) and explains access
restraints on each type of information.
While it increases your chances of getting information, you don't always have
to know the exact form of the records you seek. The agency may be able to help
you determine that. However you save both yourself and the agency time and
expense by being specific in your request.
An example from the Internal Revenue Service: In the case of a requester who
wants all tax records that pertain to him/her, the request may be difficult to
satisfy and the research and copying fees may be astronomical. As a result, the
request may be returned without processing. It is better to narrow the request
to ask for specific documents, for example: "my examination file for tax year
Another example comes from the Committee on Government Reform's "Citizen's Guide
on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request
"… assume that a requester wants to obtain a list of toxic waste
sites near his home. A request to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for
all records on toxic waste would cover many more records than are needed. The
fees for such a request might be very high, and it is possible that the request
might be rejected as too vague. A request for all toxic waste sites within 3
miles of a particular address is very specific. However, it is unlikely that the
EPA would have an existing record containing data organized in that fashion. As
a result, the request might be denied because there is no existing record
containing the information. The requester might do better to ask for a list of
toxic waste sites in his city, county, or State. It is more likely that existing
records might contain this information."
The Department of Homeland Security will process only what it calls
"perfected requests: a FOIA request for records which adequately describes the
records sought, which has been received by the FOIA office of the agency or
agency component in possession of the records, and for which there is no
remaining question about the payment of applicable fees."
Filing an administrative appeal
Department is the federal entity responsible for encouraging all other
departments and agencies to comply with FOIA. It therefore has established very
specific guidelines about how it will handle its own FOIA requests. Following
are excerpts from its agency guide. All other agencies should respond to FOIA
requests in a similar manner.
"When a Justice Department component receives your FOIA request,
it ordinarily will send you a letter acknowledging the request and assigning it
an initial request number. If you do not provide the necessary information, the
component will advise you of what additional information is required before
further processing your request.
The FOIAdvocates Web site includes a sample FOIA appeal letter.
"Once the component has processed your request and any fee issues have been
resolved, the component will send you a written initial determination. In the
vast majority of cases, Department of Justice components will include any
documents that can be disclosed along with the determination letter, though in
some cases the documents themselves may be sent within a reasonable time
afterward. The determination letter will advise you of whether any information
is being withheld pursuant to one or more of the exemptions. When a page of a
record is being withheld in its entirety, the component usually either will
specify the number of pages being withheld or will make a reasonable effort to
estimate the volume of the withheld information.
"You may file an administrative appeal if you are not satisfied with a
Department of Justice component's initial response. You might disagree with the
component's withholding of information or you might believe that there are
additional records responsive to your request that the component failed to
locate. You also may file an administrative appeal if you have requested
expedited processing or a fee waiver and the component has not granted that
request. You also may appeal a determination that a record does not exist, that
a record is not readily reproducible in the form requested, that the requested
information is not a record subject to the FOIA, or any disputed fee matter. You
should be advised of your right to file an appeal in the initial determination
letter sent by the component or in the letter denying your request for expedited
processing or a fee waiver.
"The appeal should be sent to the head of the agency within 30 to 60 days
after the request is denied. Both the front of the envelope and the appeal
letter should contain the notation 'Freedom of Information Act
Filing a judicial appeal
If your agency appeal
is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision in federal court. You may
appeal a decision whether it is based on an exemption or on procedural aspects
(i.e., an agency's determination that a record does not exist or the fee amount
it assessed). If you do bring a court action, you may file your suit in a
federal district court in any of the following places: 1) where you reside, 2)
where you have your principal place of business (if any), 3) in the District of
Columbia, or 4) where the records are located, if they are not located in the
District of Columbia.
If matters have gone this far in the FOIA process, most people will require
the assistance of an attorney. The good news is that the burden is on the
government to justify the withholding of information. The bad news is that
historically most court decisions have been in favor of the government
The DOJ keeps an updated list of recent
FOIA litigation with brief descriptions of each case, organized by exemption
number and by procedural issues. Following are a few sample cases:
"Am. Civil Liberties Union v. United States Dep't of Justice, 265 F.
Supp. 2d 20 (D.D.C. 2003) — E.O. 12,958, § 1.5(c) (pre-2003 amendment);
disclosure of aggregate, statistical information on number of times that Justice
Department has used surveillance and investigatory tools authorized by USA
PATRIOT Act would reveal intelligence activities, sources, or methods and could
be expected to damage national security."
"Ctr. for Nat'l Sec. Studies v. United States Dep't of Justice, 331
F.3d 918 (D.C. Cir. 2003), petition for cert. filed, 72 U.S.L.W. 3248 (U.S.
Sept. 29, 2003) (No. 03-472) — 2-1 decision upholding nondisclosure of the
identities and other information pertaining to all immigration detainees taken
into custody in the government's post-9/11 terrorist investigation, including
the identities of their attorneys; extending the courts' 'long-recognized
deference to the executive on national security issues' to Exemption 7(A) 'in
appropriate cases, such as this one'; concluding that disclosure 'would give
terrorist organizations a composite picture of the government investigation' and
thus enable them to impede it through witness intimidation, evidence tampering,
evasion, and the formulation of 'counter-efforts.' "
"Tripp v. DOD, 193 F. Supp. 2d 229 (D.D.C. 2002) — expedited
processing denied because requester is not 'primarily engaged in the activity of
disseminating information,' even though 'she has been the object of media
attention, and has at times provided information to the media'; requester's 'job
application to the Marshall Center and the resulting alleged Privacy Act
violations by DOD are not the subject of any breaking news story.'
FOIA report cards
Various measures can be
made of how well the government lives up to the promise of FOIA.
Annual agency FOIA reports
Each department and
agency of the federal government must file an annual FOIA report, in effect
grading itself on its compliance with FOIA and on providing information to the
public. The Department of Justice keeps all departments' and
agencies' annual reports.
An agency's annual FOIA report has these standard components:
- Basic information about the report.
- How to make a FOIA request.
- Definitions of basic terms and acronyms used in the report.
- Exemption 3 statutes.
- Initial FOIA/Privacy Act access requests.
- Appeals of initial denials of FOIA/Privacy Act requests.
- Compliance with time limits/status of pending requests.
- Comparisons with previous year(s).
- Costs/FOIA staffing.
- FOIA regulations (including fee schedule).
classification of government documents directly affects an individual's ability
to obtain information under FOIA. Exemption 1 allows agencies to withhold all
documents properly classified as secret in the interest of national defense or
The Information Security Oversight
Office, a component of the National Archives, was created to oversee the
governmentwide security classification system. By keeping track of
classification and declassification, its reports provide an important measure of
Each year ISOO prepares a summary report for the U.S. president of
classification activity in all departments and agencies.
ISOO says in its 2003 annual report that it strives to "provide for an
informed American public by ensuring that the minimum information necessary to
the interest of national security is classified and that information is
declassified as soon as it no longer requires protection."
The agency notes, "Many senior officials will candidly acknowledge that the
government classifies too much information, although oftentimes the observation
is made with respect to the activities of agencies other than their own. The
potential issue of excessive classification is supported, in part, by agency
input indicating that overall classification activity is up over the past
several years. Yet, some individual agencies are not certain. They have no real
idea how much of the information they generate is classified; whether the
overall quantity is increasing or decreasing; what the explanations are for such
changes; which elements within their organizations are most responsible for the
changes; and, most important, whether the changes are appropriate, i.e., whether
too much or too little information is being classified and whether it is for too
long or too short a period of time. The absence of such rudimentary baseline
information makes it difficult for agencies to ascertain the effectiveness of
their classification efforts."
The 2003 report also mentions Executive Order 12958, which states that
"information shall be declassified as soon as it no longer meets the standards
for classification" (Section 3.1)." The order also "specifically prohibits the
use of classification 'to prevent or delay the release of information that does
not require protection in the interest of the national security' " (Section 1.7
"Nonetheless," the ISOO report says, "declassification activity has been down
for the past several years."
Executive Order 12958 includes a "mandatory review process" that lets
individuals or organizations "require an agency to review specified national
security information for purposes of seeking its declassification. Requests must
be in writing and must describe the information with sufficient detail to permit
the agency to retrieve it with a reasonable amount of effort."
ISOO contends that mandatory review "remains popular with some researchers as
a less contentious alternative to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. It
is also used to seek the declassification of presidential papers or records,
which are not subject to the FOIA."
In an effort to put the ISOO classification report in context, a
nongovernment, nonprofit coalition called OpenTheGovernment.org released an independent
study on government classification and secrecy in 2008.
OpenTheGovernment.org has also compiled a report on the most-wanted documents.
Other nongovernment classification
George Washington University's National Security Archive, which calls
itself the leading nonprofit user of the Freedom of Information Act, is a good
place to start when looking for declassified documents about national security.
This research institute acts as a repository for donated documents previously
released under FOIA and has initiated more than 20,000 requests itself. Archive
lawsuits have forced the release of secret documents including the
Kennedy-Khrushchev letters during the Cuban missile crisis and the diaries of
Oliver North during the Iran-contra controversy. Files include "The
Saddam Hussein Sourcebook: Declassified Secrets From the U.S.-Iraq
The NSA offers a Freedom of
Information Act Audit monitoring how well FOIA requests are being handled.
How to request records from state
The Citizen Access Project Web
site includes the texts of all freedom-of-information laws enacted in each
of the 50 states. It also provides contacts for local organizations involved
with open-government issues.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's "Open Government Guide" is probably
the most complete guide to open-government law in the 50 states and District of
Each state has its own freedom-of-information laws, modeled
to various degrees after the federal FOIA. Many cities also have their own FOI
It includes a description of the laws in each state and specific information
about what kinds of records are open or closed, as well as the procedure for
making a request. Information is up to date with applicable case-law
In addition to its open-government guide, the Reporters Committee has done an
in-depth study of
electronic access in each state, "a survey of constitutional provisions,
statutes, court decisions, attorney general opinions and gubernatorial executive
orders concerning access to electronic records."
Significant FOIA victories
There has been
unprecedented access to government information in the nearly four-decade
lifespan of the Freedom of Information Act. A more open government has meant
greater public knowledge about all aspects of life. In many cases it has meant
secrets uncovered and wrongs righted. The following is just a sampling of the
thousands of issues made public over the years through FOIA.
- FOIA requests prompted the Central Intelligence Agency to release documents
detailing mind-control experiments it conducted in the 1950s and early 1960s in
which unwitting U.S. citizens were administered hallucinogenic drugs,
electroshock and radiation.
- After being sued by the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange, the
Air Force released a history of its use of herbicides during the Vietnam War,
allowing researchers to determine which U.S. troops had been sprayed.
- Responding to numerous FOIA requests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
released papers over the years about its 1950s-'60s COINTELPRO program, in which
it infiltrated leftist antiwar and civil rights groups as well as the women's
movement to monitor and sabotage their activities. In 2002, after a 17-year FOIA
legal battle, the FBI was forced to turn over the details of its unlawful
intelligence activities at the University of California during that period.
- In 1982, The Kansas City Times acquired Department of Agriculture
papers showing that although a large percentage of meat packing plants failed to
meet the department's standards, its inspectors routinely gave them satisfactory
reports and approved contaminated meat.
- In 2000, environmental groups obtained records from the Food and Drug
Administration that showed it was failing to control the levels of mercury in
fish even though its own tests showed them to be too high. By 2001, the FDA had
warned pregnant women against consuming shark, swordfish and mackerel. However,
it failed to include mercury-rich tuna. Another FOIA request, this time by the
Environmental Working Group, revealed that the FDA had come under intense
pressure from the tuna industry to exclude tuna from the warning.
- The Department of Transportation was forced to release a videotape of
crash-test dummies flying out the rear of Chrysler-made minivans on impact,
owing to a defect that had contributed to numerous deaths and injuries between
- The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal filed FOIA requests to
get Department of Energy maps showing radioactive and chemical hazards around
the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which had long made uranium for nuclear
weapons. The maps, released in 2000, showed the levels of plutonium
contamination to be much higher than the government had admitted.
Updated June 2009
Cornyn-Leahy bill would close Freedom of Information gaps