Finding out what Uncle Sam has on you
The U.S. Freedom of Information Act is approaching its 40th birthday. Given that March 12 begins national Sunshine Weekan effort to cast light onto the growing recesses of government secrecyU.S. News is providing links so its readers can file requests for federal records under the FOIA and its sister statute, the Privacy Act. The process is surprisingly simple.
Since the original U.S. act in 1966, more than 55 nations have passed freedom of information laws. Still, in too many countries, experts say, the presumption is that all records are secret until officials deem otherwise. In contrast, the U.S legislation, as generally interpreted, presumes that all government records should be public unless officials can show very good reasons to exempt them, such as for protecting national security or law enforcement sources. If citizens are not satisfied, they can take the government to court and ask a judge to decide.
Here's an online guide to obtaining information:
- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an easy-to-use FOI letter generator, for general requests under the Freedom of Information Act: Automatic FOI Letter Generator.
- For files about themselves, individuals should make requests under the Privacy Act. Here are relevant forms from the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism: http://foi.missouri.edu/foialett.html
- Although access varies, every state now has open meetings or open records laws. Here's a handy guide: http://www.rcfp.org/cgi-local/tapping/index.cgi
Often the records can be obtained by simply asking for them, but since 9/11, federal agencies have grown increasingly stubborn about what they release. In U.S. News's interview with secrecy watchdog Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), Aftergood warned that the FOIA is under attack. Excerpts follow:
The Freedom of Information Act has become a model for other countries. But how are we doing at home?
The FOIA really is an extraordinary law. But it has not realized its potential. Many agencies have enormous backlogs of requests that have not been fulfilled. Some agencies are playing what amount to bureaucratic games to limit the effectiveness of the FOIA by charging exorbitant fees for complying with it. Or by interpreting the act's exemptions so broadly that in some cases the amount of information released is reduced to a bare minimum. So while the FOIA remains a vital tool, it is struggling, and I think it needs a boost from congressional overseers and courts who are attuned to the legislative intent of the law which is to provide public access to information.
Can Americans still find out what their government is saying about them? Can they file a request and say I want whatever files you keep on me?
Yes, anyone can file a request under the Privacy Act to gain access to government files on themselves. And it's not that difficult to do you don't need a lawyer. Now, there are limits to what can be obtained. Obviously, if you are a suspected criminal, you cannot expect to gain all the investigative files that the FBI might have on you.
Until you're prosecuted.
Right. But the FBI also has a lot of files on people who are not under suspicion, and it is possible to request a copy of your file.
How tough is it to get information out of the government these days?
It's not just sensitive military and intelligence information that's being withheld, but all kinds of records that used to be in the public domain are now off limits. Five years ago, I used to go to the Government Printing Office bookstore and purchase the Department of Defense telephone directory. Today that directory is marked "For Official Use Only," and it's unavailable to the public. The government seems to be closing its doors to the public. They don't want to hear from me or you, and we pay a price for that kind of secrecy not just the frustration that might be felt by individuals looking for records under the Freedom of Information Act. Secrecy is the enemy of self-rule and makes it impossible. If we don't know what our government is doing, we cannot support it, we cannot oppose it, we cannot organize to change it. That is what's at stake here.