Utilizing FOIA to know what your government knows

By COLBY DENTON
Posted 6/13/18

How many times have you seen things done by the FBI in the news and thought, “I wonder what they know about me? What are their capabilities against everyday Americans?” While the concept of an …

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Utilizing FOIA to know what your government knows

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How many times have you seen things done by the FBI in the news and thought, “I wonder what they know about me? What are their capabilities against everyday Americans?” While the concept of an all-knowing federal agency with less-than-moral aspirations for certain citizens is horrifying, we do have an amount of protection in the form of the Freedom of Information Act.

According to its website, FOIA’s basic function is “to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.” Adopted in 1967, the act provides the public with the ability to request access to records from any federal agency. This is the law that lets citizens know what’s going on in their government. You have the right to know if the government has investigated you, and you have the right to see the contents of that FBI file. Numerous famous icons have been investigated by the FBI, including Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Walt Disney and even Lucille Ball. At times, some people simply had files because they were FBI informants like Disney; however, others were listed because of their affiliation with the Communist party, like Ball. Regardless of their reasoning, the FBI felt it necessary to keep tabs on these people. Though some had died by the time FOIA became law, if it had been available earlier these people could have seen what the FBI had on them at any time, just as we can today.

Information requests can be as simple as seeing how much energy an elected official is using at their home. This was actually famously used to see how much energy sustainable-energy advocate and Tennessean Al Gore was using in his personal home. Ironically, records showed that Gore was actually using over 20 times more energy than the average homeowner.

While often portrayed as somewhat hostile in films, the FBI truly does have a mass amount of power at its disposal. This is phenomenal in terms of protecting the United States; however, what happens if one or two bad apples affect the outcome of any sort of justice system? Although a source of heated debate, various agents have recently been questioned on the topics of alleged bias for certain politicians, which if true could set a dangerous precedent for what is acceptable for each person in the agency’s eyes.

As previously stated, how can you find out what the FBI knows about you? FOIA suggests the first step is to check and see if the information you’re searching for is publicly available prior to submitting a request. It’s often surprising to see the amount of information that can be so easily accessed if one simply knows to look for it. If the information is not publicly available, you can submit a FOIA request to the agency’s FOIA office. This request must be in writing, and describe the records you desire. Many federal agencies now accept these requests electronically via e-mail, fax or web form.

The request should include: requestor’s name, requestor’s address, subject of request, whether requestor is a representative of the news media and the maximum amount requestor is willing to pay for copying fees. Agencies typically process requests in the order of receipt. The complexity of the request as well as any preceding requests will determine how quickly you are responded to. Typically, a simple request is not a massive amount of pages, while the more complex ones can cost quite a bit to print due to their length.

Another avenue for obtaining information is via the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. 552a. The government may have private information about you, and at times can only disclose it after receiving the proper waiver. A Privacy Act request should contain the following info: complete name and address; any identifying data that could help the government identify records related to you, such as date and place of birth, former addresses and Social Security number; explain any incidents or events which you were involved in that you think may have come under FBI surveillance; tell how much you are willing to pay for duplication costs; and sign the request and have it notarized.

Not everything can be requested, as certain documents labeled confidential are just that; however, items available for request include: nonprofit organizations who receive more than one-third of funds from the government; emails; internet browser histories; screenshots of emails; texts sent by city council members during public meetings; records of personal phone calls made by officials during public meetings; overtime requests; audits; and government bids.

While this information can easily be disclosed, many news outlets have run stories on how the public trust in the FBI is waning due to the increasing presence of leakers and alleged bias. While no organization is perfect and free of vice, we as citizens would hope that the most powerful ones are more righteous and trustworthy.

If you are interested in learning more about FOIA, go to www.foia.gov

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