Citizen's Guide to Getting the Goods

The Freedom of Information Act isn't just for journalists or activist groups -- citizens (with and without blogs) can also petition the federal government to turn over documents. While it's rather simple to file a request, it's a bit more complicated to file one that actually gets you information.The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which hired two of the best FOIA filers in the country this summer, just updated its legal guide for bloggers with a FOIA primer.

How do I know what to ask for?
News articles, government reports, press releases, and Congressional hearings are good starting points for thinking up FOIA request ideas.
How do I make a FOIA request?
You can make a FOIA request by mailing or faxing a letter to the agency. You may also be able to submit your request by email. Check the agency's web site for information about how and where to send requests.
Are there any step-by-step guides for writing and submitting FOIA requests?
Yes. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has published a guide called How To Use the Federal FOI Act, and also has a FOI Letter Generator. The National Security Archive also has helpful guidance for FOIA requesters.
It's a bit simplified since government agencies vary widely in their attitude towards requests. The best advice is to make your request very narrow. Ask for a report by name (for instance, ask for the Pentagon's Inspector General's report on the Iraqi National Congress), instead of asking for all agency records about Chalabi and the INC. (BTW, there's a good possibility that report exists and hasn't been published).Another fun place to start would be to follow on Michael Ravnitzky's FOIA work, which unearthed the indexes to four internal NSA publications, whose articles have tantalizing titles like "Was a Cryptologic Corporal." All you have to do is look through the indexes, find a title or two that interests you and ask for it. You just might get it.Another place to get inspired is Russ Kick's The Memory Hole, a collection of documents he's built with FOIA requests he's filed after reading news articles. For instance, he's the one who got official pictures of the coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq when they landed at Dover Air Force base, after the photography ban was debated in the news.You could be charged a small amount, but generally if it's going to be more than $25 dollars or so in fees, the agency will let you know.And if an agency stonewalls you or ignores you, well, you can either sue yourself (not a good idea and even if you win, you don't get attorney's fees) or ask a group like EPIC or the First Amendment Center or a public interest law clinic to help.Think of it like a letter to the editor or your congress critter, it's something every citizen should try at least once.On an unrelated note, I'm pretty honored that Noah handed me the keys and I'll likely be focusing mostly on anti-terrorism and government database stuff since that's my normal beat.But keep the tips and comments coming and together we'll keep DefenseTech humming while Noah racks up speeding tickets in 10 different states.-- Ryan Singel
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