FOIA Facts: Sunshine Week and Other Things

Sunshine Week is from March 13-20, 2006. The goal of the week is to elevate the public's knowledge on the importance of governmental disclosure laws, including the Freedom of Information (FOIA) and each state's version of the FOIA. Newspapers, the primary sponsor of Sunshine Week, will publish stories about the FOIA during this week.

This is a worthy goal that should be much applauded. The government has rapidly slid into a culture of secrecy. As Congress has ceased using its oversight role on the Executive Branch, the FOIA is one of the few avenues left that allows the public to find out what the government is actually doing with public tax dollars. Programs like Sunshine Week only help to educate the public in how to make and follow through on FOIA requests.

However, not every FOIA initiative launched by the non-government groups hit the target. People for the American Way, a non-profit organization I usually applaud, has began an initiative that encourages people to file requests with the FBI to see if the government has them under surveillance. While I understand what the group is attempting to do, I believe they are directing people to the wrong agency. The NSA is the agency that is wiretapping Americans without going to the FISA Court. I believe the People for the American Way would be better served to send individuals to NSA rather than the FBI.

Speaking of the FBI, A couple of years ago, in one of my first FOIA Facts articles, I stated that the FBI had rescinded its long standing policy of making requesters go to an FBI Field Office if the requester sought records that were being maintained from that Field Office. I explained that as long as a requester asked FBI Headquarters to search Field Office records, a request to only FBI Headquarters would suffice.

Some time ago, the FBI reversed course on this progressive policy. If you want records from an FBI Field Office, you must make the request to that FBI Field Office. The FBI's FOIA website makes no mention of this fact-nor does it really tell requesters that it can get records from Field Offices. As most, if not all, FBI investigations are undertaken in the field, the most comprehensive records are those located at FBI Field Offices. Requests to FBI Headquarters usually result only in Headquarter files being processed, and these are the records of field investigations that are reported to headquarters for some reason or another.

Of course, once the FBI gets a computerized record keeping system in which all records are electronically created and maintained, this FOIA/Privacy Act problem will go away. However, the creation of this system, for some reason, has not yet