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Understanding the Freedom of Information Act

A FOIA request can be made for any agency record.

Civil Liberties Defense Center
Image: Civil Liberties Defense Center

(SALEM, Ore.) - Created in response to the infamous MKUltra program conducted by the CIA throughout most of the 1950s and 60s, the Freedom of Information Act has been considered a cornerstone of American democracy for over 50 years.

The law, and similar ones passed by the states, essentially allows any U.S. citizen to file a request for access to unreleased government documents. But while journalists, authors, lawyers, and conspiracy theorists are just some of the people who may regularly file FOIA requests, most Americans go their whole lives never filing one.

While you might think you’ll never need to file an FOIA request, nobody can say that for certain.

Here are some key things to know about the Freedom of Information Act in case you need to file a request at some point:

Your request can be denied

The FOIA does not guarantee the requested information will be released. Congress outlined nine exemptions for when records requests can be denied. These exemptions cover things like protecting privacy and national security.

Almost everything is redacted

If the request is approved, expect most of the documents you receive to be highly redacted, especially if they are related to a police investigation.

As anyone performing transcription services for law enforcement will tell you, the files for even a seemingly small and insignificant investigation will contain hours upon hours of documented interviews and statements made by officers, witnesses, victims, and suspects.

These transcripts are often loaded with information that must be kept secret due to the need to protect privacy. It may seem like a scene out of a bad comedy, but don’t be surprised when you flip through the records to see entire pages redacted except for four or five words.

States have their own FOIA laws

The often-cited FOIA only pertains to the records of federal agencies and military departments. If you want records from your local police department or a state agency, you have to file an FOIA request at the state level.

The process of getting your request through and chances of getting something back varies from state to state. For instance, in Illinois it’s not unusual for people to spend years trying to access records through a state-level FOIA.

It may raise more questions than answers

Depending on the level of redaction, the documents you receive through an FOIA request may end up raising more questions than answers.

For first-time FOIA filers, the tantalizing crumbs of information can be infuriating after all the time spent waiting for the request to be processed. However, seasoned FOIA filers know from the beginning that what they hope to receive will be far from the answers they’re looking for.

While damning revelations do sometimes arise from an FOIA, most requests serve as little more than a stepping stone for pivoting toward further areas of inquiry.

There’s no question that the Freedom of Information Act has been beneficial to the preservation of American democracy. However, those who may one day need to file an FOIA request should be prepared for the limited scope in which their application may be fulfilled.

Rather than providing the answers you seek, the results of an FOIA request are more likely to be pieces of a puzzle you’re halfway to solving.

Source: Special Features Dept.


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.

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