November 20, 2005

Courious George: Making a US FOIA Request I am a Permanent Resident of the US who immigrated 10 years ago. I am curious to find out what sort of records the federal governemt has acquired on me ("I have a file. I have a file!" -- Homer J. Simpson). From doing cursory Google searches it looks like I have to make seperate FOIA requests to each Federal agency for obtaining their records on me. Is there a centralized place where I can apply to get all my information released to me? Or do they deliberately make it painful to obtain the information? I am curious to hear the FOIA experiences of other monkeys as well. Were you surprised by the information they had on you? Disappointed? How about non-US-ian monkeys? What processes does your government have to initiate FOIA requests.
  • I'm afraid to ask for copies of my file with the FOIA. And it bothers me that I'm afraid.
  • I'd love to see mine. Back in the day I ran with a hacking/phreaking/piracy crew and will have a interesting tale or two between the blacked out sections. I was intentionally a small fish in a big pond and never got busted, but friends did. They're the ones in the history books, literally, and I'm not. Apparently the stupid and careless are the one that become famous.
  • In some instances I believe they ask that you have justification for your request. And be prepared to wait for the info. And wait. And wait. You'll get it--at their speed. As one who has had to request FOIA from the feds before on certain matters, I can tell you it's a real PITA.
  • If it's covered by FOIA, you don't have to explain why you want it. They'll ask, but you're not obligated. The info is either public, or it is not. You do not have to be a journalist or hold some special credentials to access it. If the information is not classified, then they are legally obligated to give it to you. That said, my wife's career as a journalist has been peopled with characters who tried to bluff their way out of FOI requests or tried to demand to know why she needed it. In addition, there are those who think that FOIA only applies to journalists, even in government organizations. So the ease of your search will depend largely on the person you're making the request to. The fact that you're dealing with fed agencies means you likely won't be dealing with people who are ignorant of the law, however. Generally the worst trouble my wife had with FOI requests was when she wanted an arrest report from some backwater county's sherrif's department. Not being used to dealing with the press, they thought they could refuse. Oh, and the governor of my adopted state tends to ignore FOIA. Hope you're not an Arkansan. If they refuse, ask that they show you the specific statute that allows them to withhold your information from you. Under FOIA, if an organization refuses a request, that organization is required to prove that you aren't allowed to get it. It is not up to you to prove that you are. If they stonewall and can't prove that the information is not public record, you can even drag them in front of a judge. Yes, you will have to make a request of each agency separately. It's not their job to do your homework for you. And given that you're dealing with immigration records, etc., there is a chance that some of the government's information may not be public record (national security issues, etc. -- I honestly don't know). Given that you're looking for information on yourself, you may get better access, though. My wife recommends that you contact either your state's press association or an organization like the NFOIC if you need advice on how best to go about making FOI requests.
  • Just a thought here: do you really need to make the FOIA requests? I mean, maybe you do and you have a good reason and you're actually somebody politically important or something. If not, you may just be paying a lot of money for a bunch of forms that you filled out at one time or another. Worse, there are academics and journalists who make their living by making FOIA requests. These people need the documents for legitimate research, but they have to wait in line behind every person who's 'just curious' about their file or wants to prove the govt is in league with the Elvis-Aliens. Unless you have a cast iron reason for requesting things under FOIA (and hey, you probably do, what do I know?) then please don't clog up the system by making trivial requests.
  • I like how there's a line marked "How much are you willing to pay?" on the FBI FOIA request form. What do you put on that line?
  • middleclasstool, not an Arkansan. Living under the yoke of the Governator. Thanks for all that info. Appreciate it. Dreadnought, I do not think I am anyone politically important. I do lean quite a bit to the Left of Center, though. I am sure there are departments out there with files on me. Part of the reason for my curiosity to find out how much information supposedly democratic governments collect on its citizens. We always hear about the KGB and Stasi files. I am curious about the FBI and the DoJ files. In fact, it would be more interesting if large portions of my files were blacked out. I am well aware of the tracks I leave behind on the Internet. I want to find out the tracks I leave in Real Life. cabingrl: How about saying 'I already pay your pay check through my taxes, than you'?
  • Thaths, as a government informer of many years standing, I can assure you that, yes, "they" do have quite a large file on you, and that it now includes the comments you're written here - along with copious notes by yours truly which point out and explain some of your particularly treasonous thought-crimes. We informants get paid by the word, you see.
  • Thaths - they charge for copies by the page. Finding out what your top dollar is tells them when to stop copying.
  • Pope Quidnunc the kid Is quite the informant He's paid by the word Which are often absurd And leave us in wonder what that meant!
  • I like how there's a line marked "How much are you willing to pay?" CLARK GRISWOLD: Alirght, how much? SLEAZY GAS STATION GUY: how much you got?
  • Thaths: In all likelyhood bits of the US government will have a file on you, but it will be nothing interesting. For example, you say that you're an imigrant, so the immigration people will have a file on you. The FBI? If you've been involved with people involved in the commission of a crime then they'll probably have a mention of you in their database. If you havn't been involved in any federal law enforcement circumstance then they'll very likely have no records on you at all. Ditto the CIA, NSA, TLA, ETC. The unexciting truth is that government agencies have better things to do than go running around collecting information on ordinary, law abiding citizens. Yes, this is very different from the Stasi, but that's because the Stasi employed every third East German as an informant. You ask if the government is making it deliberatly painful to do FOIA requests? The answer is yes, but not for the reason you think. The FOIA system is inundated with thousands and thousands of requessts like yours, requests with (I'm sorry to say this) no basis in real research. Now you can put the requests forward, as is your right, but keep in mind that there's some PhD student out there who's going to have to wait in line behind you to get the files they need to write their thesis. The government is being a pig because they want to discourage you from making a trivial FOIA requests which will clog up the system and harm the research projects of real researchers. If you want to find out about the operations of the secret world, the best thing to do is read the work of reputable academic researchers. These people have read, not one but, thousands of files and have writen books to share their findings. A good general reader's textbook to start with is Jeffrey T Richelson's Century of Spies.
  • Thanks, Dredders, I'm looking for a little read.
  • Fascinating story, thanks h.
  • Freedom? Can we redefine that please?
  • Bush kills Freedom of Information Act compliance officer There, fixed that for you.