But it’s not always easy. The Freedom of Information Act, a law passed in 1966 that codifies our right to obtain government documents, isn’t perfect. And agency officials who are charged with ensuring compliance of the act aren’t perfect either. Reporters, researchers and other members of the public have shared horror stories aplenty regarding outrageous fees, years-long delays and outright refusals in response to requests for documents.
It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.
After leaving the daily newspaper business to pursue independent reporting this year, I decided to put FOIA to the test by filing one request each weekday and charting the government’s responses. I also wanted to make all information obtained through the project available to the public for free, even if it costs me a scoop.
The project, titled One Freedom of Information Request a Day, was launched Jan. 9. So far, requests have been sent to agencies including the USDA, the EPA, the CDC, the Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Pentagon and various branches of the military. A little more than two months in, I’ve seen signs of promise. But moreover, I’ve seen signs of trouble, such as:
Poor data management leading to exorbitant fees
Refusal of emailed requests; redirecting requests to a separate online FOIA portal
Coercive tactics to dissuade pursuit of FOIA
In the project’s most frustrating interaction yet, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that complying with a request for airspace hazard notifications would cost $461,300 and would take five years to complete. The notifications, which are sent by the FAA to project developers when a proposed structure is judged to impede air traffic, are an important part of the work the FAA does. When I asked why access to the dataset is so expensive, an agency FOIA officer said that the requested documents are commingled with other, confidential documents, which means the records I want would have to be individually downloaded and saved.
Strangely, the FAA offered to set me up with its database contractor, who said it could supply me with the requested documents for the low, low price of $4,275. I declined.
Some agencies — most notably the FBI — have inexplicably stopped accepting emailed requests, insisting instead that requests be submitted via physical mail or fax. The agency did not announce this abrupt change in its FOIA policy until it was made public by a requester.
I had a similar experience when requesting documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection regarding its detainment of people from Muslim-majority countries this year. The request was emailed to the agency’s general FOIA inbox, but an automated message sent later said the account was no longer accepting requests. Instead, I would need to submit the request through FOIAonline, it said. I asked a Department of Homeland Security official about this, and he said the change had occurred “a while ago.” A subsequent probe by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found the change was never publicly announced.
Additionally, an emailed request seeking emails sent from the White House to the General Services Administration was similarly refused, citing the FOIAonline filing system.
I’m trying not to prejudge FOIAonline, which acts as the records clearinghouse for select federal agencies. Perhaps a centralized system for receiving requests and sending responses will make it easier to get records. But by its very nature, the system takes away some level of control requesters once had over their own requests and gives it back to the government.
During the course of this project, other agencies have sought to have FOIA requests droppedor delayed. After the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was caught in a scandal by ordering its scientists to stop speaking to the public this year, I filed a request for an administrator’s emails. In short order, an agency FOIA officer called and said the USDA would give me a few responsive documents but would like to place the request on hold until I discussed the matter with a spokesman. I declined, finding later that the agency was only releasing documents that had already been leaked or otherwise released to the public.
In another encounter, the EPA implied that because some records responsive to a request I filed for pesticide exposure assessments were already publicly available, it might be in my best interest to drop the request or sharply narrow it. Agency officials on a conference call were incredulous when I insisted that they produce a cost estimate for providing the records, which is provided for under FOIA.
But the project hasn’t been all roadblocks and redirection — so far, I’ve obtained documents from the USDA, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Postal Service. And though I’m confident I’ll have more curveballs thrown my way, hopefully this will be a worthwhile exercise in democracy. Let me know if you have any ideas for future requests or ideas on how to make this project better. I want your input! Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter @collins_reports.
Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.