The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, and the intention of the law is to make the federal government’s functioning a bit more transparent to the general public. The theory is that since We the People pay for everything, we technically own all the information that federal agencies generate.
In practice, of course, the FOIA is limited—it only applies to the executive branch, not Congress or the courts—and other considerations come into play. There are national security concerns, privacy rights of private citizens, and numerous other reasons that the government needs to keep certain information in check. That being said, the FOIA is an incredibly important and powerful tool that has been used to expose corruption and mismanagement and generally keep the government about as honest as a government can be.
The FOIA can be used by more than journalists and lawyers, though. Anyone can file a FOIA request. Here’s how you do just that and what you can—and often can’t—find out from one.
What you can find from a FOIA request
First, it’s important to know what information you can actually obtain with a FOIA Request. As noted, the law only applies to the executive branch of the federal government (the president is excluded from this). You can’t use the FOIA to get information from a state agency—but all 50 U.S. states have some form of freedom of information law on the books, so you probably still get that info, just not with the FOIA.
You also need to know that the FOIA requires these agencies to make their records available (with certain exemptions and exclusions), not to generate new material or answer questions. You can’t send a FOIA request just generally asking the IRS a few pertinent questions regarding the illegal chinchilla farm you’ve been running for the last six years. You can only ask them for specific records and documents.
The good news is that the executive branch is huge, and just about every federal agency you can think of falls under its domain—and all of those agencies generate what scientists call a shit-ton of records. So you can get a lot of information using the FOIA. What kind of info?
- You can find out if the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a file open on you (which they might, if you’ve ever gone to a protest in your life).
- You can demand documents from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) if you’re being audited.
- If you’re turned down for a federally-backed mortgage or loan, you can ask to see the relevant documentation.
- If you’ve been charged with a crime, you can seek documents that might help your case in court.
- You can ask the National Archives for genealogical information, including family military service records.
- You can seek records related to your favorite conspiracy theory, including UFOs and the Kennedy Assassination (in fact, the government set up a whole separate statute around JFK because they get so, so many requests for these documents).
Basically, you can request just about anything. If you’re ever in a dispute with the federal government or just want to know where your tax money is being spent, you can file a FOIA request.
Of course, it isn’t that easy. Even if you’ve mastered the art of filing a FOIA request, there are plenty of limitations.
For one, there is a list of nine exemptions hard-coded in the FOIA, covering national defense, internal agency rules, trade secrets, legally privileged communications, the personal privacy of federal employees, and, of course...geological information on wells. There are also hard-coded exclusions that allow an agency to withhold information that would otherwise be available, usually due to national security concerns and active federal investigations and prosecutions.
What this means in practice is that your FOIA Request can be denied. And it will be denied, a lot. According to the law, the federal agency has 20 days to respond to your request, but in practice it often takes years just to get a response. The agency in question is also directed to provide records even if portions of that record are excluded from FOIA rules, but this often means you receive a useless set of documents that are largely blacked-out and redacted. And FOIA Requests are frequently denied outright for no given reason, often requiring a lawsuit to force the agency to release the records as required by law.
Finally, keep in mind that the law allows federal agencies to charge fees for supplying these records, because they have to pay people to look for them and then make copies (unless they’re digital, of course). These fees can be pretty eye-popping, so make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. You can ask for a fee waiver, but waivers are based on demonstrating that the information has a strong value to the public interest.
In other words, if you’re dreaming of firing off a few dozen FOIA requests in order to achieve your goal of information mastery, you might want to prepare for disappointment.
How to file a FOIA request
That being said, the FOIA can be a powerful tool if used judiciously and properly—and since making a FOIA request is free, it’s always worth a try. Here’s how to make a FOIA request:
- Identify the appropriate federal agency and find its FOIA Office. You can usually locate this info with a simple Google search—for example, Googling “IRS FOIA” gets you here. Most agencies allow you to make FOIA Requests over the internet, but a few might still require a physical old-timey letter.
- Know what records you’re seeking. The more specific you are, the better your chances of getting what you want. Just asking for anything with your name on it will get you either nothing or a dump truck full of useless information, with nothing in-between.
- There is no standard form. You just write as clearly as possible describing the records you’re seeking. You can find plenty of sample letters on the internet that will give you the gist of it. You’ll want to give your reasons for wanting the information, your willingness to pay associated fees (you can specify how much you’re willing to spend, and you can request a waiver of fees if you believe the information is in the public interest), and how you’d like to receive the records (electronically or physically).
And that’s it. Fire off that letter or form submission and commence waiting. Eventually you’ll receive a response, either denying your request or delivering whatever records the agency believes it is required to deliver. You can appeal an agency’s decision within 30 days by sending another letter, email, or form submission on the agency’s website. If your appeal is denied, your only choices are to submit a revised FOIA Request seeking other records, or file a lawsuit.
Ultimately, the Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool, but it’s just like the government that created it: Unwieldy, difficult to use, and only partially effective.