Requester's Voice: FOIA Advice, Tips, and Tricks
C.J. Ciaramella (BuzzFeed)
John Cook (Gawker)
Brad Heath (USA Today)
David Jackson (Chicago Tribune)
Jenifer McKim (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)
Jennifer LaFleur (Center for Investigative Reporting)
Jason Leopold (Vice)
Kevin Poulsen (Wired)
Todd Wallack (Boston Globe)
Brooke Williams (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)
50 States of FOIA
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Over the course of over a year, a team of investigative reporters dug deep into local data to find that across the country, police recovered more than tens of thousands of stolen firearms, the vast majority of which were later connected to crimes including carjackings and kidnappings, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and murders. Using public records, they were able to tell the story behind these stolen guns with a level of detail that had never been done. Here’s how.
Tom Secker and Matthew Alford spent years digging into a secret that was hiding in plain sight. Or rather, hiding in movie theaters, television sets, and streaming services everywhere: The secret influence the Department of Defense and intelligence community had on Hollywood. In this Requesters Voice, Secker shares what he learned.
Mark Harris was getting tired of consumer reporting when he found a way to get great scoops to literally come right to him: Freedom of Information requests. Here our inaugural MuckRock Thiel Fellow shares the tips and tactics that helped him pierce the secrecy around Palantir and dig into other secretive tech companies.
Matt Topic, a Chicago-based FOIA attorney, has taken on some of the biggest public records paces of the past few years, managing to win important precedent after precedent. He shares what he looks for when considering litigation, why public records matter, and how he accidentally fell into transparency law in the first place.
Tony Webster, a distinguished public records researcher in his home state of Minnesota and prolific writer covering topics such as privacy, public policy, and public records, has been in a fierce court battle with Hennepin County over a request he sent to the sheriff’s office about their facial recognition program. We got him on the phone to give us a recap of the events surrounding the case and to discuss transparency policy and how he sees the case.
For Congress to get the background and facts they need to consider legislation and oversee the operations of the executive branch, it relies on the Government Accountability Office. Earlier this week, MuckRock had the opportunity to speak with Charles Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, and John Bielec of the GAO Office of General Counsel.
Since the 2007 Open Government Act, the Office of Government Information Services has had a mandate to help mediate disputes between requesters and FOIA offices. With the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, the responsibility of the office has been further expanded, and in this Agency Voice, OGIS director Alina M. Semo shares her view on the challenges ahead for the FOIA community.
Chris McDaniel is currently a reporter for BuzzFeed News covering execution drugs. This week, Chris lets us in on some helpful FOIA tricks, tells us how the Missouri DOC paid executioners in cash, and talks about battling increasing secrecy in the death penalty world.
In early 2014, hoping to learn more about StingRay cell phone surveillance by the Chicago Police Department, Lucy Parsons Labs started filing a few requests - and began a two-year journey into unveiling a secret, multimillion dollar surveillance program.
For over two years, dozens of articles, and thousands of public records requests, Beryl Lipton’s Private Prison Project has given much needed scrutiny to the incarceration industry. In anticipation of a talk Beryl will be giving on Friday, we interviewed her regarding her motivation for starting the project, her methodology for getting records released, and what she’s learned along the way.
Sam Sinyangwe is a policy analyst and data scientist with Campaign Zero focused on helping activists across the country better understand and address police violence in America, particularly within communities of color. Sam explains what drives his data-centric activism, and how public records are helping reshape conversations across the country.
Sue Long, co-founder of Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and The FOIA Project, is one of the field’s legends. She has been pulling databases out of agencies since they were stored on tape reels — and well before data journalism was a hot trend. She shares her advice to other requesters as well as how she accidentally found herself as a FOIA pioneer
Next week’s Sunshine Week is a special one as we approach the Freedom of Information Act’s 50th anniversary, so I decided to speak with someone who hasn’t had public access as a right for as long as we have in the States. In the United Kingdom, Right to Know was only put into practice in 2005 — and has come under repeated fire by politicians ever since.
Nate Jones is the Director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive, and editor of their Unredacted blog. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, he spoke to Michael Morisy about how he got started in public records, why you should always appeal a denial, and how that warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark is totally a real thing.
In Requester’s Voice, I’ve asked dozens of people to share their public records journeys, including how they became interested in requesting and their advice for others. I’ve learned an incredible amount from them. For our sixth anniversary, JPat asked that I turn the tables on myself, and share what I’ve learned since starting MuckRock. Having helped file over 20,000 requests all around the country, hopefully I’ve learned at least something.
After nearly four years in self-described “FOIA University,” freelancer Phil Eil’s public record education is approaching graduate level status. The evidence records of Dr. Paul Volkman - whose “pill mill” court case sparked an “epidemic” discourse around prescription drug use in America - took years to obtain from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and even then, the majority of materials were withheld. Now, with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU, Phil is immersed in a court battle for full disclosure. We first spoke with Phil last year, and we caught up with him again for this week’s Requester’s Voice.
Brandon Smith is a Chicago journalist whose work recently caught the nation’s attention after he persevered in getting police video of the Laquan McDonald shooting released, leading to one officer being charged and the chief of police being fired. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Smith talks about how public records gives him a leg up as an independent reporter chasing big stories.
Jenifer McKim’s recent investigation, Out of the Shadows, is a troubling look into how state agencies failed to protect vulnerable children, leading to abuse, neglect, and even death. But the fight for evidence needed to report the piece began years ago, with a simple public records request.
Brad Heath, investigative reporter for USA Today, has led investigations into environmental dangers in schools, prosecutor misconduct, and government surveillance. In this Requester’s Voice, he shares his tips and tactics to navigate the world of FOIA and the story behind his viral public records hit.
Harry Scheeler is a citizen vigilante requester, conducting his own audits of New Jersey’s FOI law, the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and helping others in their records retrieval. Last week, MuckRock caught up with Mr. Scheeler to talk about about citizen requesting, the politicization of public records, and how you can help.
Brooke Williams is an investigative reporter currently working out of Havard’s Safra Center for Ethics, where she investigates think tanks and their impact on public policy. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Williams shares her thoughts on why a culture shift in government openness is more important than a policy change.
Persis Yu is an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Last March, Yu requested documents describing the incentives and bonuses built into the contracts of private companies the Department of Education hires to collect student loan debt. The documents she received were redacted to the point of being useless, Yu said. After appealing the redactions, the NCLC never heard back from DOE. Earlier this month, the NCLC filed a suit against the department for the documents.
In March, Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the need to legislate more efficient FOIA processes. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Bennett spoke with MuckRock about her testimony and her own difficulties submitting FOIA requests to federal agencies.
Laura Rótolo is a lawyer and advocate at the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, we caught up with Rótolo to discuss the ACLUM’s lawsuit against the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office over records related to the Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Boston Marathon bombing.
Runa A. Sandvik is a privacy and security researcher, working at the intersection of technology, law and policy. She is a Staff Technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., a Forbes contributor, and a technical advisor to both the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the TrueCrypt Audit project. Prior to joining CDT, she worked with The Tor Project for four years.
Cultural anthropologist Michael Powell studies the impact of government secrecy on the citizenry. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Powell compares transparency in the US to other countries and talks about a bizarre FOIA training video produced by the Pentagon in faux noir style.
MuckRock user Chris Meller uses FOIA to satisfy his curiosities about the government’s involvement with day-to-day life. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Chris discusses his experiences with local public records requests and how he has managed to have his questions answered despite fees and inexperienced FOIA officials.
C.J. Ciaramella filed his first MuckRock request in March 2013, and most recently obtained the DEA’s training materials on parallel construction. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, CJ outlines how public records bring together journalists and activists from across the political spectrum.
A two-time FOIA lawsuit winner against the CIA and National Reconnaissance Office, Steven Aftergood directs the Project of Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. There he writes Secrecy News, the FAS blog, and advocates for public access to government information. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Aftergood spoke with MuckRock about refining requests and the intersection of science and secrecy.
David Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning investigations cover topics from real estate and elderly care to youth policies and coal mining. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Jackson stresses the importance of learning from unsuccessful requests and doing your legwork before submitting a FOIA.
Kel McClanahan is the Executive Director of National Security Counselors. His work in national security and information and privacy law often lands him in the world of public records. In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock caught up with McClanahan to discuss strategy, the FOIA officer’s disposition, and paying it forward.
In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock goes hyperlocal with Ann Arbor’s Edward Vielmetti. From parking garages to sidewalks, Vielmetti is plugged in to Wolverine territory. He shows us why working with public documents should extend beyond federal fiddlings and how to impact a local community.
Ryan Shapiro’s surgical FOIA tactics sent the FBI scrambling to block his efforts. Shapiro’s deluge of wisdom and narrative sprinkles range from understanding the government’s stance on political dissent to his ongoing “street fight” with the FBI and why our democracy depends on the health of the Freedom of Information Act.
Julia Horwitz is open government counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). A U.S. District Court recently ruled in favor of EPIC regarding documents being withheld by the Department of Homeland Security. Read about that court battle and more in this week’s Requester’s Voice.
David Cuillier is director of the University of Arizona journalism school, as well as president of the Society of Professional Journalists and author of the seminal public records how-to, “The Art of Access.” MuckRock caught up with the FOIA guru to talk about the future of access, bizarre denials and practical strategies for acquiring documents.
For lovers of primary documents, there are few sites as rewarding, and beguiling, as Cryptome. In today’s Requester’s Voice, founder John Young shares the method to the site’s madness, how broken public access poisons media and democracy, and why he suggests spending just one hour a year on FOIA.
Curtis Raye is that rare comic who turns to the FBI Vault and PACER in search of material. As every FOIA nerd could predict, he doesn’t have to look far for true tales of the absurd for his new NYC variety show. He just has to be patient. ‘FOIA Love’ mines funny from public records… both light-hearted and dark
Jennifer LaFleur is the data journalism editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, and has years of experience filing requests for government data. She shares indispensable tips on working with agencies throughout the process, knowing your rights as a requester and crafting stories about transparency.
Massachusetts-based disability civil rights activist Eileen Feldman has sharpened her records request skills considerably since filing her first FOIA in 2005. She insists that using public records in activism takes effort and vigilance, and pleads for everyone to demand documents in electronic format.
With nearly 300 requests under his belt, Phil Mocek is one of MuckRock’s most prolific users. Here, he shares how he’s used public access to show governmental duplicity, gives his advice for first-time requesters, and talks about some of his favorite requests - and what he would have done differently.
Kevin Poulsen, the news editor at WIRED.com, is currently front and center in one of the higher profile Freedom of Information Act lawsuits currently under way: The fight to have transparency activist Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service files released. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Poulsen explains how WIRED uses public records to get the “big ones,” why leakers are the new FOIA and what’s next in the fight for Swartz’s files.
Jason Leopold has used the Freedom of Information Act to break a number of major stories, from the drugging of Department of Defense detainees to the Biblical justifications the Air Force used for nuclear war to a drawn-out battle with the FBI over Occupy Wall Street documents.