June 18, 2004

How to Submit a FOIA

A few weeks ago, I was listening to On the Media and it had a very interesting interview with Russ Kick, the proprietor of The Memory Hole. Right after Russ had gotten the pictures of the flagged-draped coffins by his use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Bob Garfield talked with Russ on how one goes about using this act.

Russ has filed hundreds of requests, and says anyone can do it. He thinks the reasons that journalists do not use it more regularly is because it takes a long time and it can be a frustrating experience.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, FOIA-Master, bestow on us your, [LAUGHTER] your wisdom.

RUSS KICK: Well, one thing is, under FOIA you have one appeal when you're denied. Always use it. Because there are these various numbered exemptions having to do with national security or personal privacy -- they have to name specifically at least one of those. If they don't, which sometimes happens, then you've really got a great case for an appeal. But even if they do name them, you know, you try to think like a lawyer and, and figure out why they're wrong to have used that exemption. Most of the time, I've found the appeals don't work. But it's still important to try. And another thing is one of the tactics that the CIA is using, and they're one of the most popular agencies that get FOIAs, they will automatically send you a letter back saying that you have to agree to pay at least 150 dollars for each request before they'll even start processing. And the reason this is something of a trick is because they're hoping, of course, that most people will just say well forget it. You know, I, I can't afford that. The way I get around that is when I send any request into the CIA, I automatically tell them in the letter that yes, I agree to pay up to 150 dollars for this request. And so far I've never had to pay near that much.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let's say I want to find out who paid for President Bush's flight suit in his stunt where he landed on the aircraft carrier [LAUGHTER] to declare the mission accomplished in Iraq. I put a letter in the mail to the FOIA administrator at the Department of Defense and say I'm willing to pay 150 dollars for the information. Please send me the appropriate documentation? That's it?

RUSS KICK: That's pretty much it. Yeah. The only thing is, when you write the letter, you, you have to say, you know, something along the lines of this is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. And after that, just tell them what you want. It also helps if you tell them whether or not you're an independent researcher or a member of the media or something like that, just so that they can assess fees. And if you're a member of the media, it actually -- all fees are supposed to be waived. You know, you don't have to tell them anything about why you want this material, and by law they're not allowed to ask you that either.

So, it seems to me, if Russ can do this, bloggers could follow his example. At least we can keep the guys in the Govermment busy.

Here's a link to the official DOJ FOIA page.

Posted by Mary at June 18, 2004 03:40 PM | Media | Technorati links |

I read somewhere else recently that the government is now outsourcing the responses to FOIA's because of the sheer number coming in and their inability to handle them.

Posted by: wf at June 19, 2004 06:21 AM

wf, that is very interesting. I'm amazed at how many places the government is outsourcing work. And I wonder if it might be cheaper to put real civil servants to work scouring the bureaucratic files.

Posted by: Mary at June 19, 2004 06:19 PM