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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

FOIA Request Workshop

On Nov 10th, we held a workshop on how to file Freedom of Information Act requests. Here's the information from the handout we created for the workshop.


The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) mandates that people have a right to information that the federal government has collected or stored. Federal agencies are subject to FOIA, while Congress and the courts are not. FOIA requests are used to get copies of information held by executive agencies, like any of the various departments (Dept. of Justice, Dept. of Agriculture, Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Energy, etc.) and agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, for example) that do the work of the executive branch of the federal government. There are several exemptions to FOIA requests – classified
material, information on an ongoing criminal investigation, national security, and geological data are all examples. Despite these exemptions, there are tons of information collected, generated, and held by the federal government. Most of it can be obtained through FOIA requests, and even sensitive material is sometimes available, though heavily redacted.

There are two other related ways to get information from the federal government – requests for information through the Privacy Act (to get information solely about yourself) or a Mandatory Declassification Review (to request declassification of information). Every state has some sort of FOIA-like statute as well.

How have FOIA requests been useful in the past?

Iowa “Wild Rose Rebellion” information – a request to the FBI yielded 300+ pages of heavily redacted information on surveillance, internal structure, and Joint Terrorism Task Force (“JTTF”) partnerships. In this case, activists can learn some of the ways FBI agents gather information on them (here, filming direct action trainings, obtaining phone records, looking for suspicious tattoos, following folks around, digging through trash…plus many more). The JTTF partnerships might lead to a FOIA-type request at the state level to find out how public money is used rashly (here it suggests university cops justified their existence by providing info to the FBI on students) – this can spur organizing against excessive surveillance by people who might not otherwise care too much.

Sacramento prisoner support – and FOIA request referring to Eric McDavid found that the Sacramento County Jail forwarded all incoming mail for Eric McDavid to the local FBI office, which forwarded the mail to the field office closest to the sender to alert them of “possible environmental extremists” in their area, even when noting that the letters were benign. This provides us insight into prisoner support and confirms what we already suspected. It also shows us a little bit about the FBI’s treatment and classification of Eric, and again, the more we know about the internal workings of the FBI, the better prepared we are to prevent unjust repression.

Uncovering infiltrators – while active infiltration is not likely to be reported, a request might yield enough on an infiltrator working on a past investigation to determine that infiltrator’s identity. We can also learn a little more on how infiltration is conducted.

COINTELPRO – we can better learn the history of the state’s disruption of radical movements through FOIA requests. Understanding and evaluating the weaknesses of these movements is important for organizing radical alternatives today, and it may be useful to see what the state was really scared of and what threats were taken most seriously.

What kinds of information can we find?

First, take a few minutes and write out what kind of information you are looking for. FOIA requests are research tools, and only useful if a federal government (or state government) agency or division subject to the FOIA has that information already. You can get some insight into what sorts of information government agencies collect and store by looking at the agency’s website – all must maintain FOIA request records of some sort. There is actually quite a lot of information already published – finding out what you want to know is then a matter of finding the information yourself and figuring out how it’s organized. So spend a little time looking at different agencies’ annual FOIA reports to see what kinds of information you might request. For example, if you are simply looking for what information the federal government has collected on you, figure out what agencies might collect such information and see if others have made similar requests.

Every agency or department has its own procedures and forms for FOIA requests. Spend some time on the appropriate website and look elsewhere on the Internet for examples of successful and unsuccessful requests to that agency to begin writing your letter.

Here are some hypothetical examples to illustrate the kinds of interesting information you might find:

-The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a division of the Dept. of Justice, and you might request information on a certain inmate or policy – for example, looking for more information on Communications Management Units or vegan food availability or use of force incidents.

-The Dept. of Agriculture might be a good place to look for information on federally-funded research into genetic modification of crops, or studies conducted by the Dept.

-Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains records on immigration detention facilities that are hard to find elsewhere, and you might learn more about 287(g) enforcement agreements.

-The FBI might have files on historical examples of repression, if you wanted to know more about investigation into and disruption of Puerto Rican solidarity activists. Sensitive requests, of course, might be denied or held up unless you can pressure them through court with a lawyer.


We aren’t interested in FOIA requests because we want to become paranoid and delude ourselves into overestimating our relative importance. Nor do we want to let the FBI know that they should start surveilling us! FOIA requests can help a self-absorbed activist stoke their own ego. None of the above helps us realize a more liberated world or fight oppression. Make a FOIA request to learn more about how the FBI is operating in your neck of the woods, or to help you in targeting organizing efforts, or as some other creative part of a bigger project or campaign!

FOIA requests can also cost money. Many won’t cost much money at all, unless you make a very big request that requires a lot of research or copies. You should find out if you can make a case for fee exemption, and state the maximum amount of fees you are willing to pay in your request letter. Judge whether or not that money would be better spent otherwise forwarding your projects!

Try one!

(the rest of this document is copied directly from

How to get started
The first step in acquiring information from the government is to determine which department or agency holds the information you seek. There is no centralized office that processes or coordinates Freedom of Information requests, so the requester must go directly to the appropriate agency. However, the Department of Justice does act as a centralized source for information about FOIA and for locating all federal government departments and agencies.

* As noted earlier, if you are seeking information about yourself, you should file a request citing both the Privacy Act and the FOIA in order to get the fullest possible disclosure. If you seek information that is not exclusively about yourself, you should cite FOIA only.

* Each federal agency has its own FOIA Web site that includes a guide to filing requests with that agency as well as other FOIA-related information and its annual compliance report. The Department of Justice keeps updated links to all other federal agencies' FOIA Web sites.

* The DOJ also keeps an updated list of principal FOIA contacts at all federal agencies, whom you can write, phone or e-mail directly to verify jurisdiction over information.

* The DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy has a FOIA counseling service that answers general questions and helps with determining which agency to approach. Its number is 202/514-3642.

* The Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration also answers questions about FOIA, advertising that it is "especially prepared to help you find the right agency, the right office and the right address." Phone 800/333-4636 or e-mail them your questions from this site.

* Before you send your request, you should locate two separate offices within the agency that has what you're looking for: the agency's FOIA office, and the specific office within the agency that keeps the particular records you want. P.J. Kaufman, writing in the American Bar Association's The Young Lawyer (January 2005), notes: "Send your request to the [agency's] FOIA office, and be sure to identify the office you think maintains the records you seek." If the agency's FOIA office doesn't have to figure out which office has your requested records, it may save a lot of time.

* The Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over most products and provides a helpful guide to the products (and some services) that other agencies oversee.

* If it's still unclear which agency has the information you seek, it may be a good idea to file your request with more than one applicable agency.

After you've located the appropriate agency, the next step is to determine if the information you're seeking is already available on that agency's Web site. In addition to their various publications and reports, all agencies publish a certain amount of information prescribed by FOIA and make it available both in print in their reading rooms and in electronic form on their Web site "reading rooms."

This information includes: (1) descriptions of agency organization and office addresses; (2) statements of the general course and method of agency operation; (3) rules of procedure and descriptions of forms; (4) substantive rules of general applicability and general policy statements; (5) final opinions made in the adjudication of cases; (6) statements of policy and interpretations adopted by an agency, but not published in the Federal Register; and (7) administrative staff manuals that affect the public.

FOIA also specifies that agencies publish in their reading rooms copies of records released in response to FOIA requests that have been or will likely be the subject of additional requests, as well as an index of those previous FOIA releases.

Even if you do not find the information you are looking for in the reading rooms, the frequently requested records at many agencies can make for interesting reading. (For example, the FBI's reading room includes, in the Famous Persons category, scanned copies of original documents about everyone from Albert Einstein to Elvis Presley to John Wayne. The Unidentified Flying Objects category includes 1,600 pages of government documents.)

Other guides to assist your search:

* "A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records." Detailed, user-friendly guide prepared by the Committee on Government Reform and published by the Government Printing Office.

* "How to Use the Federal FOI Act." Excellent guide prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Geared specifically toward journalists.
( [includes “FOIA letter generator”]

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