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FOIA offers citizens access to government data
By Thomas Hargrove
Scripps Howard News Service


March 11, 2005

Ever wanted to take a peak into the inner working of the federal government? Or perhaps you're just curious about what bureaucrats have written about you and your family?

The U.S. Justice Department operates a Web site ( and has printed several guides to help Americans negotiate the Freedom of Information Act, which was intended to make government and the information it gathers more accessible to the general public.

Congress first enacted FOIA in 1966 to - according to the Justice Department's summary of the law - "generally provide that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information."

But government attorneys also warn that, "This does not mean that the Department of Justice will disclose all records sought."

There are lots of exceptions to the kinds of information you are permitted to get, including the right of the federal government to keep its secrets secret and the protections that other people have that you won't obtain personal information about them.

The guide explains how Americans may request government information about themselves, including the requirement for a "notarized statement or a statement signed under penalty of perjury stating that you are the person that you say you are."

The government is required "to respond to a FOIA request within twenty business days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays," although this response is usually an acknowledgement that a request has been received and is being processed.

The Web site also includes specific annual reports from nine federal departments and 43 independent agencies of how many information requests it has received and how many are still pending.

The Department of Defense, for example, reported receiving 77,256 FOIA requests last year, of which 39,342 were "fully or partially denied" or "could not be filled" because records do not exist or are not available. The Pentagon also reported spending $47.2 million to process FIOA requests.


E-mail Thomas Hargrove at HargroveT(at)

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