Notes from FOIA workshop at HOPE

Here are my unedited notes from the FOIA workshop at the HOPE conference, from Michael Morisy over at MuckRock:

notes from FOIA talk – Michael Morisy, MuckRock

  1. Introductory notes
  • number one most important: no open ended questions, ask about specific records. learn about what categories of records you can request.

  • state laws are modeled after the federal laws but are less helpful with eg fee categories, appeal process. federal level is very bureaucratic. local level is a bit crazier. less training, less consistency. more creative exemptions.

  • detailed guides to state laws: muckrock.com/place

  1. How do you turn your questions/research into a request?
  • get into the mindset of a govt manager. in govt, everything is documented. every time they want to spend money or tell someone to do something – there is always a paper trail. mandatory reporting.

  • procedures and process: think through how the govt program gets implemented. eg ICE raids and deportations – how is this being done? govt officials have always been given specific direction. someone FOIAed and found out that the head of DHS signed off on a memo specifically saying that they would be separating families.

  • public admission: anytime a govt official says eg “according to this study…” “we’re tracking reports” “we’re tracking incidents”.

  • collaboration between agencies, eg federal and local agencies, one will care more about keeping something secret than the other. in some cases local govts will be easier to obtain from. a few years ago FBI was giving stingrays to local police. the FBI made the local police sign NDAs for these surveillance devices. local police complied with FOIA because the NDAs were not exemptions (FBI would not release)

  • what about agencies that keep things as drafts to avoid FOIA? if something is a draft, they aren’t actually supposed to be using it as policy. also some FOIA laws do not exempt all parts of the draft. read closely to what is not exempted.

  • should i file multiple FOIAs on the exact same subject because it will generate multiple pieces and then you can complete them with the multiple requests? yes but don’t file the exact same. carefully piece together responses. there’s somethign called mosaic theory, compare responses over time.

  1. Where to begin? How to craft your request?
  • agency’s own website. they have electronic reading rooms
  • records retention schedule – google your state or the federal agency of your choice and this phrase and you’ll find out how long they are legally required to keep specific documents
  • take a look at Muckrock archives on the website and other people’s requests, you can learn good language and tactics that way
  • if something is not listed in their records retention schedule, requesting it via FOIA is a good way to put a hold on it – agencies are legally not allowed to destroy records when there is a public record request (though they sometimes do)
  • FOIA mapper: for getting ideas about records. they have information systems that different agencies keep.
  • creative use of google restricted search, eg just .gov domains or just the .gov website. or just specific file types: most govt runs on powerpoint and pdf
  1. Writing the request
  • requests should be specific!
  • include a citation of the law, specific requests, enough detail for the agency to local the information, the name of the doc, who has the doc, references to the record by the agency or news media
  • DoD once told michael that the avg request goes through 12 people
  • requests should not cite every possible law, include extraneous arguments or background, bury the request in legalese, forget that there’s a human on the other side (being very nice to the person might get your fee waived or off-record stuff)
  • privacy act protects individuals when they’re alive, few privacy restrictions once the person is deceased
  • assume the request will get passed around. if you’re really worried about tipping someone off to what youre looking for, foia might reveal your tactics to that person
  • you can broaden things out to eg an entire office comms on one subject, rather than just a specific person, to avoid getting detected
  • often agencies don’t know what’s happening in other parts of the agency
  • agencies love talking on the phone and telling you secrets there
  1. follow through
  • assume good faith

  • let them know when you expect a response

  • follow up and get an estimated completion date

  • interview the response – how was this report generated? who put this together? could it be lying or biased or missing info in some way even unintentionally? eg how many different ways that philadelphia was spelled in the PPP docs

  • appeal – about 1/4 are successful in releasing more

  • you can ask for copies of internal websites, wikis, think broadly about what can be available that isn’t just a doc. copies of

  • most requests should be about one page

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