FOIA requests
February 3, 2005 4:58 PM   Subscribe

FOIAFilter! Have you ever submitted a FOIA request? [for more, please submit your request to inside]

I am doing a school project on the Freedom of Information Act, and even though we know we won’t get the document (if we do get it) in time to write about the result, we’re going to submit one just for fun so we can discuss the process of doing that and our subsequent communication with the agency (to be determined).

So: Have you ever submitted a request? To which agency? How did it go? Did you get the document? Was it censored when you got it? Do you think or know that you now have an FBI file? Etc. This is decidedly not HomeworkFilter, as the assignment is about the Act, not the process of requesting, and our own request is even tangential at best to the assignment. I’m just curious! Email me (address in profile) if you don’t want to broadcast your revolutionary and rebellious exercising of your rights to information across the Internets.
posted by librarina to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There was a FOIA question last week here, slightly different topic, but some interesting answers, which might be helpful for you.
posted by jessamyn at 5:05 PM on February 3, 2005

I used to answer FOIA requests. Before moving to another position in the same agency I spent ten years as a food buyer for the DoD. Unsuccessful offerers would submit FOIA requests all the time, asking for the bid/proposal abstract. We routinely redacted information like other bidders/offerers names while showing the pricing.
posted by fixedgear at 5:13 PM on February 3, 2005

Oh, I am so lame. I site-Google five different ways and didn't find this so I thought I'd made up its existence. Bad, bad librarian.
Still - personal experiences?
posted by librarina at 5:13 PM on February 3, 2005

Hi, librarina,

As a journalist, I've submitted a FOIA or two. I submitted one to the Department of Health in 2003 to find out about a group that received a $450,000 grant to teach sex ed. When it came, it was uncensored and quite informative.

Most recently I submitted one to the State Department to find out about briefings on Middle East policy. That one's been a little slower and has taken forever. Plus they were cagey about giving me a waiver to avoid paying a fee.

My dad submitted one regarding an archaeological dig and it got rejected.
posted by inksyndicate at 5:14 PM on February 3, 2005

theonetrubix documented his filing one of this week with the FBI. He may be able to shed some light on his [pdf].
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 5:23 PM on February 3, 2005

I've probably submitted 20-25 FOIA requests in the past six years. They were all the same type, all to the same agency: requests for copies of people's original Social Security Applications, which I use for genealogical purposes. They're called SS-5's, and they are actual Xerox copies of the (rather short) form our great-grandparents and others filled out to apply for Social Security back in the 1930's and later. I use them because they can provide a person's parents' names, including mother's maiden name. You do not have to be related to somebody to request their record.

You can do this too with your class, fairly easily. Go to and use their copy of the Social Security Death Index. Search on a person's name, someone who has been dead at least a year and who would have had a Social Security number. (Some women who never worked outside the home used their husbands' numbers to claim benefits and never had one of their own.) The website will even generate the letter for you to send off to the FOIA Workgroup in Baltimore, along with a check for $27.

Other than taking a heck of a long time to come back with results (usually about two months), I have had no problems requesting information from the government--and have found a ton of relatives to add to my family tree!
posted by Asparagirl at 5:41 PM on February 3, 2005

For what it's worth, I have nothing to add re: my FOIA request to the FBI that isn't reported in the item that was linked by someone else above. It is the first one I've ever submitted, so I suppose I will learn something no matter what happens, about the process if about nothing else.
posted by theonetruebix at 6:13 PM on February 3, 2005

I recommend all the links I posted in the other FOIA thread Jessamyn linked to, as well as these resources:

Just came across this today - How to File an FOIA Request (courtsey of be Spacific).

I would also recommend the following resources:


Citizen Access

The Memory Hole - Russ Kick is constantly filing federal FOIA's and you can learn a lot from reading his site.

Chilling Effects

Tapping officials' Secrets - This site is operated by The
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
and has comprehensive guides to state and territory FOIA laws & regulations.

I am also going to send you an email detailing my experiences with state & federal FOIA requests.
posted by mlis at 7:02 PM on February 3, 2005

MLIS, unless it's personal, I'd like to encourage you post that email here too. I'm quite curious to see how these things play out in practice.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:06 PM on February 3, 2005

JKF - good point. I should have included some info with my other post.

I have filed several FOIA's with NYC agencies. It has always been a frustrating experience. The staff that handle the requests often seem to have no understanding about the scope of the law. I have tried to handle things "informally" (i.e., attempting to get information that legally should be available by just calling and asking for it) but this never works.

I have been told, "Unless you are a lawyer or reporter I don't think you can even file a FOIA." The thing to do is to try to deal with the FOIA Officer (who is sometimes a lawyer) who is knowledgeable about the law.

Ok, so. Let's say you get the FOIA Officer on the phone, explain what you want, and say you will be sending a fax to confirm your request.

The most common response from the agency is: no response. In NYS, if an agency fails to respond to your FOIA request within 5 business days of the receipt of the request, it is considered a "constructive denial".

You can then file an appeal of the denial of your request with the agency you requested it from. If after 10 business days the agency has not responded, it is considered a "constructive denial".

This denial does not grant the applicant access to the records, unfortunately. From the relevant NYS law: ". . .applicant will be deemed to have exhausted his administrative remedies and will be entitled to seek his judicial remedy."

So, now you have to decide how badly you want the records because your only recourse is to initiate an Article 78 proceeding, that is, to sue the agency to compel them to release the records.

On the federal level there is a form that a non-lawyer can file to bring the issue to court but in NYS this step requires hiring a lawyer to file the paperwork which is *at least* $250.

The bottom line is that many NYC agencies just ignore FOIA's correctly assuming that many people will not have the time/money to pursue it.

A good example of this is what the New York Times has been doing. For three years the Times has been seeking information from FDNY about their response on 9/11.

FDNY denied their inital request. So the matter went to court and has been appealed all the way to the NYS Court of Appeals.

Mind you, the Times prevailed at the trial court and all of the intermediate courts. The case will be argued next month and hopefully a decision handed down before the July recess.

The point is, the Times is going to win. But FDNY has been able to drag it out for 3 years and cost the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating the case.

There needs to be teeth in the FOIA laws. As the law works in NYS right now, it only guarantees access to public records if you have enough money to litigate your requests.

There is another option I should mention. In NYS you can seek an advisory opinion from the NYS Committee on Open Government. If the Committee grants you an advisory opinion, NYC agencies will *usually* grant you the records you seek.

The committee on Open government is a wonderful resource for anyone seeking information from a FOIA in NYS. The Executive Director, Robert Freeman, will actually respond to voice mail messages even if you are just a "citizen" and not a reporter.

I have gained access to some records through the use of advisory opinions. I have also been ignored and not pursued it in court.
posted by mlis at 9:55 PM on February 3, 2005

Very interesting. Thanks much, this is going into the bookmarks.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:10 PM on February 3, 2005

Wow, MLIS, thanks! And others too - this is fun! Though I am kind of (ok, really) outraged at how easy it is for them to blow you off.
posted by librarina at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2005

We should all request our files, put them online, and strongarm another user to FPP about it. :-)
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 9:40 AM on February 4, 2005

All very interesting answers, thanks for asking the question librarina.

My dad submitted one regarding an archaeological dig and it got rejected.
posted by inksyndicate at 5:14 PM PST on February 3

This one has me wondering! So intriguing.
posted by safetyfork at 12:49 PM on February 4, 2005

this thread's inspired me to request mine. If I get a reply, I'll mention it on my userpage.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 5:10 PM on February 4, 2005

Well, got my reply much sooner than I expected, and it's that I have no file. If anyone would like to see the format of letter that I used, it's here. The FOIPA form I referred to was downloadable from, and basically just lets you fill out your name, SSN (optional) etc. with a little note at the bottom basically saying "by signing this I swear I am who I say I am, and can therefore authorize this request"
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:44 AM on February 17, 2005

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