And getting inspector generals’ reports of investigations of misconduct by senior officials can be even trickier. In fact, agencies may not release such reports unless you first file a FOIA request for them.
The obvious problem, of course, is that unless you know an investigation report is out there, you won’t know to ask for it. As a result, many IG reports simply “disappear into the mist,” one knowledgeable source noted.”
“It bears repeating: The office that oversees the most powerful military in history (not to mention the best-funded) is unable to project when its single fax machine will once again be operational.”
The fax machine to receive Freedom of Information Act requests at the Pentagon is broken and there won’t be a replacement until November. The fact that the office uses a fax machine and not email to receive these requests is already ridiculous, but they also can’t fix or replace their only fax machine?
Update 4:52 p.m. - Apparently the fax machine is fixed. It’s amazing the things you can get done when you start yelling about them. https://twitter.com/OSD_FOIA/status/380697383715098624
The Department of State’s launch of its new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) online request platform and terrific, comprehensive, 80,000-document online FOIA reading room, makes it a fitting time to review how to craft a good FOIA request to the Department of State (or any agency, actually). Frequent filers of FOIA requests know that Department of State is one of the most responsive agencies when it comes to requests, appeals, and working with requesters to obtain as many responsive and relevant documents as possible. Let’s make their job easier by submitting well-written requests.
Here are some pointers:
1. Make sure that what you want to send is a FOIA request and not an MDR (Mandatory Declassification Review) request. The process of filing an MDR request is similar in many ways to the FOIA, however MDR only applies to security classified records, or records that are protected for national security reasons under EO 13526, as amended. The request must be either for specific documents or a narrow range of documents that the agency can locate with minimal effort. If the document is not classified, you can only request it through the FOIA.
2. Include a reasonable time frame for the documents you are searching. Including dates can help FOIA officers find documents faster and to make sure they are relevant to your request. However, be careful. If you give too short of a time frame this could seriously limit the documents FOIA officers can find (ex: not including several days after a conference you are seeking information on when DOS reports and cables need a few days to be cleared and sent). If you make the time frame too broad, researchers could end up with hundreds of documents and many of little interest to the requester.
3. Include TAGS when sending FOIA requests to the Department of State. TAGS are specific to Department of State cables, but if you know how to use them, they can seriously speed up the research process. You can include country or regional TAGS in your request and suggest FOIA officers subject tags as well. See here for a list of TAGS
4. Include footnotes, articles, other publications, or previously declassified documents that reference the subject of your request. When crafting the body of your FOIA request, including footnotes, articles, or other publications that deal with the subject of your request can help give a FOIA officer some background knowledge and distinguish relevant responsive documents from irrelevant ones. Including previously declassified documents that reference the subject of your request can also direct a FOIA officer where the best place to start researching and find the most responsive documents to your request would be.
5. Be straightforward; no one is trying to hide information. Despite what some conspiracy theories might suggest, FOIA officers are not looking to keep information from being released because of political leanings of a requester or even the purpose of the request. The law is clear and their job is to release as many documents to public as possible, unless the release is legally prohibited by a non-discretionary FOIA exemption (information still properly classified, for example). Be as clear as possible of what you are searching and include as much background information as you know. A FOIA request should not be a guessing game.
“Is it possible to imagine a national security secrecy system that the public would plausibly view not with suspicion but with support, much as the strict secrecy of IRS tax returns is broadly understood and supported? What steps could be taken to reduce national security secrecy to the bare minimum?”
Steven Aftergood, a long-time expert on government secrecy, puts the Washington Post’s story on the “black budget” used to fund intelligence operations in context and wonders if there is a better way to go about government secrecy.
It means that finally within the executive branch it’s starting to resonate that the public is not happy with the type of surveillance that is going on, the public isn’t happy with being kept in the dark. And that it’s time to come clean with the public about what’s going on.
But obviously it shouldn’t have taken litigation and a massive leak to make this happen. It should have happened in the first place.”
Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation on what it took to get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court opinion on the NSA.
It’s a great read on what it takes to get crucial documents.