To provide a little bit of insight into the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, process, and to encourage others to make use of it by showing just how relatively simple it is to make requests with it, I’m going to be following a number of FOIA requests from their inception all the way through to the bitter end, and posting about it once a week.
As you might recall, last week I filed four FOIA requests – two to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one to the Department of Homeland Security, and one to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. By last Friday, I’d received a phone call about the DHS request, and was expecting form letters acknowledging the requests to the FBI. While waiting for those to arrive, I decided to file another request, this time showing the entire process involved, so people can see just how simple it really is.
Most of the time, people use the FOIA to get copies of written things – reports, letters, memos, emails, or various kinds of logs, for example. But that’s not all the Act permits you to request – you can ask for any “records” held by the government, where “record” generally means something that can be copied without too much difficulty. (A DVD player, for example, can’t be copied; it’s an “object”, not a “record”. A DVD, however, can be copied. Usually.) To demonstrate this oft-overlooked use of the Act, I decided to hunt up an interesting-sounding electronic “record” or two, and request it.
The military runs a very interesting and often-overlooked website called DAVIS/DITIS – that’s Defense Audio-Visual Information Service / Defense Instructional Technology Information System. In a nutshell, it’s an index – and, for selected records, ordering system – for a huge number of “multimedia” records owned by the military. Most are educational, or edutainment, but many are still interesting nonetheless.
Hunting around through the listings, I stumbled across this record, a guide to Air Force participation in “National Security Special Events”. Now, there are at least three NSSEs coming up in the next year – the political conventions in August and September, and the presidential inauguration in January of next year – so some people might actually find this interesting, and, dare I say, useful? It’s (probably) not going to be anything groundbreaking, but that’s not really the point. As the record listing shows, this is “unclassified”, so there should be no great hurdles to getting a copy released. The only trick is to figure out who to send the request to.
When dealing with the military, there are always two possible ways to address FOIA requests – you can send them directly to the main FOIA office of the branch involved – in this case, the Air Force, who will forward the request on to the appropriate component – or you can save some time and effort by sending the request directly to the appropriate component yourself. The latter is preferable, if you’re able to locate the correct outfit; the former always works – eventually.
To “order” this item, the index for the item says to contact the “life cycle organization”, which in this case is AFNorth – military-speak, as a quick Google search shows, for the 1st Air Force, headquartered at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. (Never mind why the “Air Force North” is based out of the southernmost state.) So, I headed over to the 1st AF website, and looked around for a FOIA contact. Not surprisingly for the Air Force, there isn’t one.
Here’s where experience – and ingenuity – come into play. A lot of times, components – units, squadrons, whatever – don’t have their own FOIA staff. Rather, Freedom of Information matters are handled by the installation at which they’re based. In this case, it’s Tyndall AFB, who have an easy-to-find FOIA page, complete with email address.
A quick email, citing the Freedom of Information Act by it’s formal name – 5 U.S.C. 552 – and our request is on its way. In this case, I got lucky, and got an acknowledgment of the request a few days later, saying it was being processed. Sometimes, you don’t get so lucky, and even though you get the request to the people with the record(s) you want, they don’t have – or don’t acknowledge – the authority to fulfill (or deny) your request, and it gets “bumped up the food chain” to a higher level command. This is an area where submitting your request directly to a component, and not the main FOIA office of the agency, really benefits you – there seems to be a general belief (however incorrect it may be) that it’s the responsibility of whomever you send the request to to communicate with you, the requester. By sending your request to a component, you’re shortening the chain of communication by at least one step, greatly increasing the odds that you’ll be kept abreast of what’s going on with your request, and speeding things up greatly, as well.
Whenever I get a response, I’ll get the records online, so you, too, can enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Total effort expended on this request: About twenty minutes. Cost incurred: nil.
Catching up with previous requests, I’ve still received no response from the FBI to either request I made last week. This could be a good thing; usually, if there are “no records responsive to your request”, they let you know so pretty quickly. It could also mean that my cunning plan to speed things up by sending faxes has backfired, and that they either haven’t received them, or haven’t processed them yet. If I haven’t heard from them in two more weeks, I’ll follow up on each request – by email, this time. I’ve also yet to receive a response from the Ministry of Defense; perhaps they adhere strictly to a first-in, first-out policy? I did get a note regarding the DHS request, letting me know that because of the “complexity” of the request, they would require an additional ten days to process it.
Next Friday: Updates to these requests, if any, plus new and hopefully interesting and/or entertaining stuff…