FOIA the FOIAS

Let's face it. Although the Freedom of Information Act is a great tool for revealing government information, getting the results of a FOIA request can often be a dismal experience. The types of official responses can range from "No records fit request" to "This information is being withheld under the authority of (an exemption du jour of the Freedom of Information Act)." If you have received the latter response, you probably will receive pages spackled with large black marks to hide information. Or it could be worse: the entire document may be withheld, with the agency or department letting you know that exemptions apply to every comma and period in the record.

Getting such a result after weeks, if not months (and sometimes, years) of waiting can produce a "Why bother?" attitude to the thought of filing other FOIA requests.

But one type of FOIA request produces results time after time -- with less of a wait. With these requests, you can see what others persons are requesting from federal agencies or departments, and you can request the same information they have received. This technique is commonly used by attorneys and businesses, and is gaining in popularity with journalists.

As we tell everyone: "FOIA the FOIAs!" (The exclamation mark is optional.)

FOIA the FOIAs

What is it?

To "FOIA the FOIAs," you file a Freedom of Information Act request for the log or index of FOIA requests that have been received by a government agency.

Information from these logs, also called FOIA case logs, normally include:

  1. The log or file number
  2. The date the request was received
  3. The name of the person or organization making the request
  4. A description of the information sought
  5. The date the response was sent
  6. The type of response sent (granted, denied or partial release)

The request can be narrowed by time length, although using a time length of a year or more is the most effective way to retrieve the information. You can also limit other elements of the log. For example, you could file a request for all requests on the subject of the Branch Davidians or the Persian Gulf War.

See an example from the Persian Gulf War

However, keeping the request as broad as possible, limited by date only, gives researchers an advantage in discovering information on various subjects. This is true particularly if the logs can be obtained in an electronic format, which we discuss below.

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Why make such a request?

A FOIA log is a treasure trove of information, invaluable for seeing: (1) What information is requested from agencies (2) Whether multiple requests for the same information are being received -- indicating a hot issue that may merit further investigation and (3) Who is requesting the information.

The key benefit is that any information previously released under a FOIA request is, in most instances, available for you to request immediately. With the information from the log, you can pinpoint requested material down to the case log file. These specifics reduce guesswork on your part and possible foot-dragging by officials processing your request.

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Should I request the log in an electronic format?

If the log is available in an electronic format, request it. You are allowed to request an electronic copy, if it exists in that format, under the 1996 amendments to the FOIA, also known as the Electronic Freedom of Information Amendments.

Once you have the electronic document, you can use a variety of computer programs to explore patterns. For instance, a database program such as Access can find all the occurrences of certain words under the "Subject" heading or field. Or the program can find the number of times a particular requestor made requests. Any of these sets of entries could prove useful for further research.

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What right do I have to access these logs?

The Freedom of Information Act's generalized description of government records covers FOIA logs. However, exemptions one through nine of the FOIA may be used to prevent release of certain entries or material, such as material that would jeopardize personal privacy.

The logs' status as open records has been strengthened by federal departments selling their logs to commercial providers. The Department of Justice's Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission have sold copies of their logs to Newsnet of Bryn Mawr, Pa., which resells the material to online database providers like Dialog.

Access to FOIA logs is not limited to those maintained at the federal level. Unless otherwise exempted, logs of state records can be obtained under state open records laws.

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But isn't that unethical?

And in case we didn't mention it, here is another good reason to FOIA the FOIAs: it is a good way of checking up on the competition, whatever your profession might be.

From time to time, we hear complaints that obtaining FOIA logs violates some code of ethics. Journalists, in particular, tend to think that a record of their FOIA request should be shielded from prying eyes, i.e. competing reporters working on the same story.

We, however, believe that an open record is an open record -- which is what a FOIA request becomes once it is filed.

In a recent controversy, the editor of a Florida newspaper bitterly complained after The Tampa Tribune filed a request for the FOIA logs from the governor's office. The editor had been told about the Tribune's action by the governor's press secretary, who said that she was concerned about the ethics of the request.

Our Center responded with a letter to Editor & Publisher, which had published a story about the controversy.

June 27, 1998

  • Editor & Publisher
  • Letters to the Editor
  • 11 W. 19th St.
  • New York, NY 10011

Dear Editor:

After reading your article "Tampa Tribune Denies Spying on Competitors" by David Noack, June 13, 1998, one came away with the impression that journalists have devised a new way of shooting themselves in the foot. Unfortunately, journalists complaining about legal access to government-held public records on ethical grounds is nothing new.

It has happened at least twice before. In 1987, The Daily News of Los Angeles asked the Southern California Rapid Transit District under the state public records law for documents previously released to competing newspapers. In 1981, Jack Taylor used the federal Freedom of Information Act to request after action reports, summaries of visits and interviews conducted by journalists, from the Pentagon.

In both the Florida case and the federal case, the ethical charges originated with the agencies that the media were investigating. In Florida, suspicions that the Tampa Tribune was "spying" on its competitors were planted by the governor’s top spokesperson. In Jack Taylor’s case, an Army chief of public affairs judged the request a "violation of professional ethical standards."

The fact that journalists then took up the cry begun by public affairs people is alarming to me. Did they not question whose interests were being served by these viewpoints?

Legislation allowing access to public information held by governments has been hard won in this country. Although the right of access has been guaranteed by law, battles against government secrecy are waged daily. The Freedom of Information Center at the Missouri School of Journalism has been monitoring this daily struggle since 1958. We can never afford to take this right for granted.

Kathleen Edwards
Manager, Freedom of Information Center

To summarize: In a better world, no one would need to resort to the tradecraft of reporters and attorneys to find information. It isn't a better world, so thank your lucky stars that you can FOIA the FOIAs.

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