Maybe it was a Google search you forgot to put into Incognito. Perhaps, you’ve noticed a few blacked-out SUVs showing up in your neighborhood lately. Whatever the case, if you’re curious to learn more about what the federal government thinks about you, there’s a way to find this out and more. A FOIA request can be used to see what dirt the government has on you, as well as uncover information otherwise kept behind closed doors by the feds. Learn more about this option and how it all came to be.
What Is a FOIA Request?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows Americans to inquire about information the government has. A FOIA request is a formal inquiry people can submit in order to obtain the information they seek. You do not have to be a U.S. citizen to make a FOIA request.
Each Federal agency or department has its own personnel to handle a Freedom of Information Act request. For example, a USCIS FOIA request would be handled not by a centralized request center, but rather by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and/or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
What Are the 9 Exemptions to a FOIA Request?
Even though you’re free to file a FOIA request, you can expect there to be some guidelines and restrictions involved. Here are the nine exemptions when filing a FOIA request that you won’t be able to receive information for, according to the U.S. government:
- “Information that is classified to protect national security.
- Information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
- Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
- Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.
- Privileged communications within or between agencies, including those protected by Deliberative Process Privilege (provided the records were created less than 25 years before the date on which they were requested), Attorney-Work Product Privilege, or Attorney-Client Privilege.
- Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.
- Information compiled for law enforcement purposes that could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication, could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law, or could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
- Information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions.
- Geological information on wells.”
In addition to these exemptions, there are also exclusions making information within said exclusions not subject to FOIA:
- Protection for information dealing with an ongoing criminal law enforcement investigation in the event the subject of the investigation is unaware that the investigation is pending and disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
- Criminal law enforcement agencies are limited due to the protection for the existence of informant records when the informant’s status has not been officially confirmed.
- The third and final exclusion applies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to protect the existence of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified.
John Moss and the Cold War
It may seem strange to Americans today; however, there was once a time when the government would actively spy on its citizens. No, really, they did!
Though it’s completely unrelatable by today’s standards, during the Cold War, monitoring Americans was a big deal to sniff out Communists. Thus, the history of FOIA takes us back to a much different time.
A Congressman from California by the name of John Moss came up with the idea of the Freedom of Information Act in 1955 following several steps taken by the government for secrecy during the Cold War.
Shockingly, government agencies and President Lyndon B. Johnson hated the idea. It would finally be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives after several attempts only after clarifying rules and exemptions for government agencies in 1966.
Even then, the law had plenty of hurdles to clear. For example, President Johnson held no public event for the signing, unlike other major bills he would sign. President Johnson also championed loose interpretations for exceptions to help give the government more power.
Things would change in favor of the FOIA and its supporters, however, in 1974, following the infamous Watergate scandal. This caused amendments to FOIA that brought it into its most current form that we know in modern times.
New regulations and timeframes were brought into FOIA. Furthermore, language in the bill was changed to get rid of fees previously required by journalists and public interest groups.
Additional changes came to FOIA thanks to the Government in the Sunshine Act in 1976 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments came to be under President Clinton in 1996 to account for the Internet and technology.
The FOIA Improvement Act in 2016 came about under President Barack Obama. This brought about the central online portal allowing for FOIA requests from government agencies.
Through the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and the overall struggle between Americans asking for more transparency and the government fighting back, the FOIA remains. It has had its restrictions and non-cooperative moments, but it remains an option for citizens today.
How To File a FOIA Request
To file a FOIA request, submit a FOIA request form to the government agency of your choice’s FOIA Office. You’ll need to make sure this is in writing, clearly defines what you’re looking for, and follows the specific requirements of the particular records you seek.
Electronic requests are generally acceptable, and those seeking information are encouraged to use the Internet before submitting. Many requests can be avoided, as the information is readily available online via the agency’s website or by searching FOIA.gov.
Your FOIA request can be used to seek a wide range of information, and you might just uncover the truth you desire. But be careful what you wish for, as this information could present what you once thought to be true in a whole new light.