MuckRock’s Leaks and FOIA FAQ

Everything You Wanted To Know About Transparency (But Were Afraid to Ask Twitter)

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

With so many hot takes being offered on Wikileaks these days, we thought it would be good to clear the air with a simple primer on the difference between information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and information obtained from leaks.

Are leaks the same as FOIA releases?

No.

Are FOIA releases the same as leaks?

No.

Are you sure?

Yes.

So, what’s the difference?

Broadly, FOIA releases are government records that have extensively and exhaustively reviewed as part of the FOIA process, to prevent the release of information considered too sensitive or dangerous to be reasonably considered as part of the public record. Think nuclear access codes, social security numbers, and geological information on wells for some reason.

Leaks are not. There’s no official process to vet leaks, and they don’t have to be government records, for that matter.

Where does this confusion come from?

Like every other problem in modern society, a big part of the blame can be placed on journalists and politicians. Journalists often treat primary source documents as if they were the product of some Deep Throat-esque intrigue, when they just filed a FOIA request like anybody else. Friend of MuckRock Nate Jones had to remind no less a stalwart news source than NPR that Jack White’s infamous Guacamole recipe was released through a simple public records request. Something that Mr. White himself didn’t appear to grok.

On the other hand, politicians act as if records were stolen out of their bedroom in the middle of the night when a clerk handed them over as they are legally obligated to do.

But really, it’s your fault. You should have aggressively corrected anybody on the internet who was ever wrong about this.

Really? Does that work?

We can neither confirm nor deny.

Okay, but aren’t leaks necessary nowadays because FOIA is broken?

FOIA is far from perfect – absurd delays are par for the course, and those aforementioned exemption process can be pretty liberally applied to material that would just be embarrassing – but that hasn’t stopped it from being at the heart of some of the biggest news stories in recent memory. Or us at MuckRock getting over a million pages of records and counting. Plus, anybody can use FOIA, for any reason, and it comes with the force of law.

So yeah, FOIA is broken in the same way your first car was broken – technically true, but if you’re smart about it, that doesn’t keep you from getting you where you need to go.

That’s not a great metaphor.

That’s not a question.

Fair enough. What about leaks?

Leaks can be necessary and important - rhymes with “Schnowden” - but generally require having an inside connection, and insiders typically have an agenda.

Which really touches on the issue at the heart of the discussion, and which both leaks and FOIA have in common: context. Neither happens in a vacuum, and in order to truly understand them and the role they play, we need to understand the context in which they’re being used or why.

Can we end on some platitude about how both leaks and FOIA have their roles, but need to be distincted from one another if we’re going to have a informed discussion about the role of transparency in democracy?

Yes.