Earlier this year, the New York Times asked all of the presidential candidates to waive their privacy rights and permit the newspaper to review all government files that mention them.
Although that particular request was later withdrawn, that doesn't mean government files containing information about the candidates must be kept secret. In fact, many government files, whether they contain information about a candidate, a private citizen or a defective toy, are public record.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, the records of federal agencies are presumed public and open to inspection. The records of Congress, the courts and state government are not covered. (Many states, including California, have public records laws that are very similar to the FOIA.) But if you want to see if the FBI has a file on you, review an inspection report on a nursing home certified for Medicare or find out more about an airline regulated by the Department of Transportation, you can use the FOIA to gain access to the files.
Nine Exempt Categories
The way it is supposed to work is relatively straightforward and simple. All records are public unless they fall into one of nine exempt categories. You must send your written request to the Freedom of Information Office of the agency that has the records you want. Write "Freedom of Information Act Request" on the envelope and at the top of your letter.
If you are not sure which agency might have the files you are seeking, contact the nearest Federal Information Center, which is responsible for helping provide this information. In Los Angeles, the center is at 300 N. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90012; telephone (213) 894-3800.
Your letter need not be elaborate. Simply state that in accordance with the FOIA, you are requesting access to, or copies of, certain documents. Describe the files you want as precisely as possible, so some bureaucrat won't toss it out because he doesn't understand it or he feels your request is overly broad. You'll probably be charged for search fees and photocopy costs, unless your request is a benefit to the public.
Your request can be denied if the agency believes a specific exemption applies. Ask in your letter that, if your request is denied, the agency explain what exemption applies and why.
The nine exemptions cover national security information, internal agency rules, confidential business information (some of the biggest users of FOIA are firms checking out the competition), certain interagency communications, personnel, medical and other files containing private information, law enforcement investigatory records, certain records of financial institutions, geological information on oil wells and other material explicitly protected by other laws.
Most Agencies Backlogged
The law requires agencies to respond to your inquiry within 10 days, but most agencies are so backlogged that it will take much longer.
If your request is denied--you'll hear about it in writing--you can send a letter of appeal to the same agency, and your request will be given another look. If it is still denied, then you can take your request to federal court by filing a lawsuit challenging the denial.
The government publishes a detailed handbook, "A Citizen's Guide on How to Use the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act in Requesting Government Documents." It sells for $4.50. Write the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. Ask for Stock No. 052-071-00540-4.