Have you ever filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request?
I filed my first one on October 12th, 2019. Before I did, though, I learned what FOIA is and why it’s important.
The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law on July 4th, 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and went into effect a year later. When President Johnson signed the bill into law, he made the statement: “I signed this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society.”
It’s purpose was to “give the public the right to access records from any federal agency”. (https://www.history.com/topics/1960s/freedom-of-information-act)
It has been amended in the past, starting in 1974 following the Watergate scandal, and most recently in 2016 with the “FOIA Improvement Act of 2016”. (Full text here: https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s337/BILLS-114s337enr.xml)
According to the History.com website, FOIA has made some of the following impacts:
• It revealed the FBI’s surveillance of dozens of well-known African American writers for five decades starting in 1919
• It revealed that the US narrowly escaped detonating a hydrogen bomb over North Carolina in 1961 when the B52 bomber carrying it crashed
• In 1980, FOIA revealed that the EPA knew paper mills were discharging dioxin into rivers
• After the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, FOIA revealed wasteful government spending during recovery
• In 2016, a FOIA request uncovered a report that an American supplier of Parmesan cheese was substituting wood pulp for Parmesan in its products
Those are huge discoveries made by citizens using FOIA! It makes my request seem trivial by comparison!
A couple days ago, I filed a FOIA request to obtain all the information I could about Dorothy Parker, the writer, journalist, and poet immortalized by the Algonquin Round Table in New York City. I hadn’t heard of her until I downloaded the New York Times iOS calendar to my phone in May 2019. One of the first things that popped up was a “Dorothy Parker Day” in early June. Since I lacked the knowledge about a woman who apparently has her own day with the Times, I started researching her.
My first stop was the local bookstore. I found that they had one book about Dorothy Parker, “The Portable Dorothy Parker” (ISBN: 978-0-14-303953-2) edited by Marion Meade; unfortunately they couldn’t find it. A couple months later, I was back in the same store and found the book! The timing was perfect because I had just started a research project, and the topic included famous literary groups. I learned about the Algonquin Round Table, which is largely remembered for Dorothy Parker’s involvement. I loved that an alert from my iPhone calendar, a graduate level writing course, and this book all intersected over a small period of time.
In the book’s introduction, Meade wrote:
“Throughout her life, she [Parker] toiled on behalf of an array of left-wing causes: she took part in organizing the Screen Writers Guild, joined the Communist Party, spoke out unfashionably early against fascism, and succeeded in racking up an FBI file that ran to more than nine hundred pages.” (Pg. xvii)
I remembered the weeks of research about Mrs. Parker and I realized just how much more I had to learn about this witty woman. I want to know what is in those 900 pages the FBI has on her, so I went to http://www.foia.gov and poked around for a few minutes. On the landing page, one of the first statements I saw said:
“The basic function of the Freedom of Information Act is to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.”
Since the FBI was directly named in my research clue, I went to their site and found the FOIA request section (https://www.fbi.gov/services/information-management/foipa), because they were not included on the first FOIA site. Before submitting my request, I checked out the FBI’s electronic FOIA Library (https://vault.fbi.gov/), also called The Vault, to see if Dorothy Parker’s info was readily available. It was not. What I did find was a bunch of stuff on Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and some documents related to the madness going on in DC over the last few years. Since I didn’t find what I was looking for, I submitted the FOIA request. From my understanding it can take a while to hear back. I’ll let you know once I get something!
I also learned from the FBI FOIA site that there are some exemptions that will prevent you from getting the information you request. Some of them are long winded, so I’ll include the link here (https://www.foia.gov/faq.html), and I will summarize them below:
EXEMPTION 1: Information that is classified to protect national security.
EXEMPTION 2: Information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
EXEMPTION 3: Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
EXEMPTION 4: Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.
EXEMPTION 5: Privileged communications within or between agencies, including those protected by the a) Deliberative Process Privilege, b) Attorney-Work Product Privilege, or c) Attorney-Client Privilege.
EXEMPTION 6: Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.
EXEMPTION 7: Information compiled for law enforcement purposes that could interfere with enforcement proceedings, deprive a person of a right to fair trial, could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, disclose the identity of a confidential source, or could endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
EXEMPTION 8: Information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions.
EXEMPTION 9: Geological information on wells.
Honestly, that last one is intriguing and I want to look more into it! Why wells? I need to do some more research about FOIA, its exemptions, and the documents that are readily available in The Vault.
It is worth noting that the FOIA applies only to the federal executive branch agency records and not those held by Congress, the federal judicial system, or government agencies at the state and local levels. That’s really a shame, because I’m sure there is a ton of FOIA treasure to find in just Congress alone! (History.com)
Have you filed a FOIA request? I’d like to learn more about your topic and experience in doing so. Like, share, and comment below!