FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)

FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) limits the ability of United States federal government agencies to withhold

Kate Martin, shown in her office at the Center for National Security Studies of George Washington University's Gelman Library. She was a lead attorney in a Freedom of Information Act case seeking the disclosure of the identities of hundreds of individuals who were arrested and jailed after the September 11 terrorist attacks. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
Kate Martin, shown in her office at the Center for National Security Studies of George Washington University's Gelman Library. She was a lead attorney in a Freedom of Information Act case seeking the disclosure of the identities of hundreds of individuals who were arrested and jailed after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

information from the public by classifying that information as secret. Passed by Congress in 1967, it applies to the agencies of the executive branch, and not to the legislative or judicial branches, or to state or local governments, although every state has its own privacy and public access laws. FOIA did not become a significant aspect of American public life until the early to mid-1970s, when several events, including the Watergate scandal, the passage of the Privacy Act in 1974, and amendments in 1975, helped give it much greater importance.

Historical Background

When Congress first passed FOIA, the law did not apply to investigatory files compiled for the purposes of law enforcement. This exempted files collected by the Justice Department and its agencies, most notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), from the FOIA. Within a few years of the law's passage, however, the fabric of American public life would change dramatically, bringing with it changes in many of the nation's laws, including FOIA.

Whereas ordinary citizens had long been accustomed to trusting their government and to respecting organizations such as the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), revelations of spying and other "dirty tricks" committed by the Nixon administration before and during the Watergate years helped influence a sense of distrust of Washington. Prior to the early 1970s, suspicion of the federal government was limited primarily to those on the political fringes of right and left, but thereafter, the belief that the government was spying on its citizens became an increasingly prevalent attitude.

The Privacy Act and changes to the FOIA. By the mid-1970s, this change in attitude would be reflected in Washington by efforts to increase the openness of the federal government to its citizens. Nixon himself issued an executive order limiting the number of agencies that could classify information as top secret, and thus exempt it from FOIA provisions. He also required officials in such situations to explain why information had been classified as top secret in the first place.

The scandal surrounding Watergate, and the looming possibility of an impeachment, forced Nixon's resignation in 1974, the same year Congress passed the Privacy Act. The latter greatly restricted the authority of agencies to collect information on individuals, and to disclose that information to persons other than the individual. At the same time, it required the agencies to furnish the individual with any information on him or her that the agency had in its files. The Privacy Act, along with 1975 amendments to FOIA, greatly broadened access to federal files—including those of law-enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies—that had formerly been under severe restriction.

FOIA procedure today. In addition to restricting the purview of federal agencies with regard to documents, what came to be known as the Freedom of Information-Privacy Acts (FOIPA) placed an enormous onus on those agencies to respond to all requests for information. For example, in the quarter-century after 1975, the FBI handled some 300,000 requests involving the release of more than 6 million pages of documents. Not every part of every request is granted, however: FOIPA does allow exemptions for sensitive material.

In some situations, the requester has to pay for fulfillment of the request. Answers to questions regarding payment and any number of other specifics may be found with the Department of Justice, which in 2003 maintained an FOIA section at its Web site. There it listed FOIA contacts at various government agencies, as well as other information relating to FOIPA.

By the early twenty-first century, every federal department, agency, office, and bureau had its own FOIA contact. For most entities of any size, there was at least one individual tasked full-time with processing, responding to, and fulfilling these requests. In some cases, there were multiple individuals or even an entire office devoted to this purpose.

At the FBI, for instance, requests are received, logged into computers, and assigned a tracking number. The agency then formally acknowledges the request, and conducts an indices search to determine whether it even has the records requested. Once an apparent match is located, it is reviewed to determine whether it is the exact file requested.

Assuming the file exactly matches the request, it is photocopied, and an analyst reviews the work copy to determine if there is any material that meets any one of nine exemptions and three exclusions covered in FOIPA. If any such material exists in the file, the analyst uses a colored marker to delete it, and in the margins cites the appropriate exemption. The pages are then re-copied using a photocopier with a special filter so that there is no chance anyone can detect the deleted material. At that point, the copies are mailed to the requester.

During the early twenty-first century, the FBI and other agencies were developing automated document processing systems that would replace many of these steps. These systems would also remove the need for a marker pen, and would allow for documents to be released in electronic format.



Henderson, Harry. Privacy in the Information Age. New York: Facts on File, 1999.

Sherick, L. G. How to Use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). New York: Arco, 1978.

Theoharis, Athan G. A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.

Ullmann, John, and Steve Honeyman. The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.


Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). U.S. Department of Justice. < > (March 16, 2003).


CIA, Legal Restriction
Classified Information
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Intelligence, United States Congressional Oversight
Justice Department, United States
Nixon Administration (1969–1974), United States National Security Policy
Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues
Security Clearance Investigations

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