Why Was the FOIA Established

Mary Gormandy White
Your Right to Know
A Citizen's Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Are you wondering why was the FOIA established? The United States Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was established to ensure that private citizens have the right to records and other information from agencies of the federal government.

Accessing Information Under FOIA

While every federal agency must comply with the FOIA, each one has its own procedures regarding records access. If you need information from a particular agency, you should start by finding out exactly what procedure should be followed to gain access to the type of records that you need. Fortunately, each federal agency publishes information about how members of the public can request access to records under the Freedom of Information Act on its website. You can find a comprehensive listing of every agency's FOIA website on the Other Agencies' FOIA Websites page on the U.S. Department of Justice's website.

Depending on the type of data you want, you may need to make a formal written request to the agency that has the records you are interested in. In some cases, however, you may be able to access the information you want online. For example, the U.S. Department of State maintains an Electronic Reading Room where anyone can find the agency's policy and procedure manuals, details about opinions and administrative rulings, historical records and other information. When you visit the appropriate agency's FOIA website, you will find detailed instructions regarding how to submit a formal request and links to the information that can be freely accessed over the Internet.

The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to every government entity. It applies exclusively to agencies of the federal government, but not to Congress, the court system, or records held by agencies operated by state or local jurisdictions. While it may be possible for the general public to access information from these types of organizations, the FOIA does not apply to them. Every state has public information access laws of its own. If you need information from a non-federal government agency or other type of organization, you should research the law in your state or directly contact the entity in question directly to inquire about the proper procedures for doing so.

Freedom of Information Act Exemptions

It's important to note that the FOIA does not guarantee that members of the public have access to all types of records and information. Some information is protected and is therefore exempt or excluded from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. To deny a request for information, however, an agency is required to demonstrate that the information meets specific criteria that allows it to be excluded from the FOIA.

There are nine exclusions to the FOIA:

  1. National Security and Defense - Information pertaining to national security that can impact national defense or foreign policy is not subject to the FOIA.
  2. Agency Personnel Rules & Practices - Agencies do not have to disclose information regarding internal human resource matters.
  3. Exempt by Statute - If another federal law specifies that a particular type of information is protected, the FOIA does not apply.
  4. Trade Secrets and Commercial or Financial Data - The public does not have the right to demand access to privileged trade, commercial, or financial information generated by or provided to a government agency.
  5. Inter or Intra-agency Communications - The FOIA does not provide for mandatory access to inter or intra-agency documents that would not be discoverable during a legal proceeding.
  6. Information Affecting Personal Privacy - Agencies do not have to disclose information about any individual if doing so would be a violation of the person's privacy.
  7. Law Enforcement - Records compiled for the purposes of law enforcement or that could interfere with enforcement of the law do not have to be disclosed under the FOIA.
  8. Financial Institution Records - Information that relates to government oversight or supervision of financial institutions is exempt from the FOIA.
  9. Wells - The FOIA does not require disclosure of any geophysical or geological data regarding wells.

More Information Regarding Why Was the FOIA Established

To learn more about the Freedom of Information Act and why was the FOIA established, see the National Security Archive compiled on George Washington University's website. You can also see the full text of the law on the Department of Justice's website.

Why Was the FOIA Established