The Freedom of Information Act: What can it do for you?
The present state of affairs in the United States has many Americans in a constant state of uncertainty. As we discussed in my previous blog post, we are inundated with information; morning, noon, and night. The question of what information is real and what news if fake is everpresent. Often times individuals are left with the impression that they cannot trust what anyone tells them; least of all their government.
The information we are fed by the media can often lead us to doubt the intentions of not only “the government” in its entirety, but also of our elected officials; both by party and as individuals. According to a multi-decade long poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in the US government has dropped over the past 50 years. While these percentages have fluctuated, presently, only about 20% of Americans say that they have confidence in the intentions of their government. This is in stark contrast to the trusting three-quarters of Americans of the 1960s. Now the question is: “Is the government decreasingly trustworthy, or are the American people increasingly skeptical?” Personally, I would like to believe that a less trusting society equals a more inquisitive and critically-thinking society.
Fortunately for us, as Americans, there is legislation to ensure the government’s commitment to accountability: The Freedom of Information Act. The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is a law that guarantees your right to access information directly from the federal government. It is widely recognized as a vital part of American democracy. FOIA was enacted in 1966, and went into effect the following year. Championed by the late congessman John Moss of California, the bill was intended to denounce excessive government secrecy. After years of obstruction and rejection, with the help of heavy media coverage, and ultimately, the reluctant signature of president Lyndon B. Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act passed into law. Thus ensuring the ultimate transparency of the federal government to its citizens. (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/foialeghistory/legistfoia.htm)
While there are a few exceptions as to what the government can openly disclose to inquiring individual, government agencies are required to divulge information requested under FOIA. Anyone can make a FOIA inquiry, you are not required to be a US citizen to submit a request.
Now this is all very nice, but you are probably wonder “How can the Freedom of Information Act benefit you, the average American citizen?”
As a prime example, which stems from my previous blog post; when it comes to “fake news” FOIA can provide an excellent means of researching and resolving your questions and uncertainties. In May of 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a request under FOIA to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for facts supporting President Donald Trump’s claim of voter fraud. These claims were widely reported by the mainstream media, and were spread across the internet and social media, making their way into our homes. The ACLU utilized the rights protected by the Freedom of Information Act, to examine these assertions.
The ACLU has the extensive means and resources, as well as a legal team, to make a request such as this. However under FOIA you, as an individual, have the same power and the right to make such requests. When information is presented to you as factual, as it relates to the federal government, you can find out where to go to determine its accuracy.
As I mentioned before, nearly 80% of Americans lack confidence in their elected leaders, and the federal government as a whole. Typically you can fact-check a politician’s claims by performing a little research; often just a Google search. However when you hear claims from politicians, or government agencies, that seem outlandish, FOIA allows you to confirm or refute their allegations.
Presently there are over 100 agencies which are subject the Freedom of Information Act, with several hundred offices which respond to requests. In order to make an inquiry you must pinpoint which agency and location holds the answer to your question. In almost every case you are required to submit a written request. Some agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security have a FOIA submission form on their website which can be filled out and easily submitted. Other agencies, such as the Department of State require you to write and mail a letter in order to submit your request.
Many federal agencies publish answers to some of the more common or high-interest FOIA requests in online resource centers. Individual agencies must use a certain level of discretion when determining what information can be made available to requestors, and the impact of that information. This decision making is guided by the Office of Information Policy. There are many steps involved in conducting this level of research, and it can be difficult and overwhelming attempting to maneuver the process. However, knowing about FOIA, provides individuals with a great deal of power when it comes to interpreting the information to which they are subjected.
In addition to being able to request information from federal agencies, and the federal government, each of the United States has its own individual set of laws regarding the freedom of information. While each state is different, these laws allow individuals to request public records from state and local governing bodies.
A common belief is that the United States government does not favor the best interest of the American people. Money and power can play a very prominent role in American politics today. So often we are told what and how to think, and ideas can be strategically planted to manipulate our world view. It is important to stay educated, to ask questions, and to develop an understanding of the way the government is being operated. It may seem cliche, but knowledge truly is power. Americans are presently living a very politically charged, and divided society, and asking questions and demanding answers is one way for you, as an individual, to make an impact.
*If you are interested in making a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or a request from your state or local government, I am happy to help you find the appropriate contact, and walk you through the process. You can complete this form to inquire about this service.
To Learn More About FOIA
FOIA Full Text:
Your Right to Public Records; the government’s general public information brochure on access to federal agency information:
More about the FOIA request on voter fraud claims:
Freedom of Information Laws Internationally: