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Monday, July 25, 2016

Freedom of Information Act Turns 50



As the nation celebrated its 240th birthday, this past Independence Day also marked the 50th anniversary of the historic legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  This law gives the media – and anyone – the right to access information from the federal government. The National Security Archive, a non-profit that champions the use of the law, shows how it’s been used to expose waste and mismanagement, reveal national security decisions, expose threats to food safety, and hold government to a higher level of accountability. Authors, journalists, and digital media rely on FOIA discoveries to inform the public and to keep our democracy honest and thriving.

Unfortunately, not many people use the powers of FOIA.  Some are confused over how it works or are unaware of the process.  Some are discouraged when requests become expensive, delayed, or denied on a technicality. It’s not a perfect system, but it has made us a substantially better-informed and better-served nation.

According to the State Department’s website, “President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government as his first executive action, ushering in a new era of open and accountable government meant to bridge the gap between the American people and their government.”

Unfortunately many government agencies and officials still play dirty when it comes to answering, honestly and fully, in a timely manner, all of the FOIA requests that it receives.  Just recently a lawsuit was filed by a national security researcher and MIT Ph.D. candidate, Ryan Shapiro, alleging the FBI is purposely and willfully avoiding public access to documents requested under FOIA.

To place a FOIA request with the dozens of federal agencies that are mandated by the law to participate, there’s no form to fill out.  All you need to do is make a request in writing. You can email or fax it – or mail it.  Each agency may ask for specific details in order to honor your request.

A sample of the agencies you can contact include National Science Foundation, National Transportation Safety Board, EPA and Departments of Commerce, Finance, Defense, Energy, Education and of Homeland Security. A complete list is available at www.foia.gov.

There are many exemptions to the law, some with very good reason. Information that is classified to protect national security; is viewed as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; and disclosing techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions is not stuff that the government has to turn over.  There are other exceptions and didactions that the law calls for. However, how does the agency prove that they have met the FOIA standard when declining or honoring a request?  How does the filer know if the government acted truthfully and fairly in what it denied access to?

Writers should look to FOIA requests as a way to gain inside knowledge of what the government should’ve released in the first place.  The writer who knows information can be valuable is also someone who can find a way to use this information to not only make his or her book of more substance but to make it sell well.  Who knows what interesting data or secret dealings can be exposed with a well-written FOIA request.  Don’t you think it’s time you find out?

Go use FOIA to your writing advantage – and help make our country better informed in the process.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBl

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