Freedom of Information Act Requests: a Lesson in Patience

Freedom of Information Act Requests: a Lesson in Patience
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California attorney Scott Talkov is an avid home beer brewer. In August 2012, he submitted a public records request, otherwise known as Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), to the White House to obtain the recipe of White House Honey Ale. President Obama took to Reddit, stating that the recipe “will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”  

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) enables citizens to request information from the U.S. federal government. Variations of the act exist on a state by state level as well, allowing citizens to request information from their local government. The bill was first introduced by Democratic Congressman John Moss in 1955, but political parties and federal agencies alike remained hesitant for some time. After World War II, there was increasing animosity towards government secrecy. According to TIME, a 1947 poll revealed 59% of respondents felt the government was withholding too much information from its citizens. To appease this national sentiment, President Johnson, “with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society,” signed the FOIA bill on independence day in 1966.

In theory, FOIA allows citizens to hold their government accountable. Yet, in practice, submitting a FOIA request can be a test of patience: agencies may require a written request, take weeks to respond, and charge a fair amount for their efforts. One extreme example lies with history Professor Monte Finkelstein’s unfulfilled FOIA request from the National Archives and Records Administration. His inquiry for documents in 1993 remained unanswered from the Clinton administration into Obama’s third year at the White House. In 2011, a FOIA specialist from the National Archives finally responded.  

It is often the absence of a response from an agency that makes headlines. We look to three cases that caused quite the stir due to silence:

Operation Snow White

Operation Snow White refers to the Church of Scientology’s strategy to purge government files of “false reports about the organization” in the 1970s. Marty Rathbun, an ex-official of the Church of Scientology, told Vice News that there were initial efforts to obtain these documents via formal FOIA requests. However, they found the process too slow and subsequently took drastic measures. The organization planted undercover Scientologists within government agencies, including Gerald Bennett Wolfe, a typist at the IRS, who stole thousands of documents that were withheld when requested via FOIA. The operation was eventually uncovered in 1976 and catalyzed the government’s general investigation into the Church of Scientology.

Hidden Drone Strikes

While the Obama administration made great leeway towards a more transparent government, they remained cryptic with regards to the use of drones. In 2010, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a FOIA request to several federal agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), concerning  the legal use of drones in overseas targeted killings. In response to the request, the CIA remained ambiguous in terms of whether the drone program even existed. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the CIA in response. They claimed that the agency could not deny the FOIA by refusing to confirm the program’s existence, given the CIA Director had already publicly acknowledged the program. Although the Obama administration eventually released a drone strike ‘playbook’ fact sheet in response to the lawsuit, it refused to release any portion of the actual Presidential Policy Guidance.

17 years to compile FBI paperwork

Documentary filmmaker Nina Seavey filed a FOIA request with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and was told that considering the volume of records requested, it would take 17 years to complete. Seavey was unimpressed with the FBI’s response and took the case to the U.S. District Court. District judge Gladys Kessler echoed her sentiment and bluntly rejected the proposed time frame. While the FBI claimed the request would disrupt the FOIA unit’s workload, Kessler found their argument “unilluminating”. The FBI now has a comfortable three years to complete the request in full.

Not all records requests make headlines

While the process of submitting a FOIA request may be frustrating, it reminds our increasingly tight-lipped government that citizens have a right to transparency. If you would like to submit a FOIA request, you can make use of FOIA.gov to learn more about how to do so. Alternatively, refer to Muckrock to track the status of public records requests—or even file a request on their site.

At Enigma, we are no stranger to the Freedom of Information Act. We frequently write letters to both the state and federal government (and one letter sent to the UK home office!), requesting data that we feel is culturally relevant or otherwise important. From Arkansas amusement rides, to Federal tax liens and U.S farm subsidies, we have a plethora of public records requested data for your exploration on Enigma Public.

Help Enigma democratize data

Had success with a public record request for data? We would love to feature it on Enigma Public. Send us your data (to public-support@enigma.com) in a structured format (i.e XLS, CSV) and we will add it to the world’s broadest collection of public data.