You can ask for information from the federal government using a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, if the information you seek isn't already available. Parts of the federal government are legally required, with few exceptions, to make their records available to the public as a matter of course. If you're after information about yourself, you can use the Privacy Act.
Here are the basics of FOIA and Privacy Act requests -- which agencies must comply, which exceptions might apply to your requests, and how to make and appeal an FOIA request.
The Freedom of Information Act applies to all 15 federal departments (like the Department of Commerce), and 73 federal agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency). It does not apply to the President, nor to the courts, Congress, or state and city governments (however, every state has its version of FOIA, as do many cities). FOIA requires that the list of departments and agencies to which it applies be available in print and online.
The Privacy Act of 1974, designed to allow citizens or lawful aliens to obtain records about themselves, applies to federal agencies only.
FOIA requires only that departments and agencies disclose existing information. It does not require the gathering of new information, nor does it require agencies to reconfigure, analyze, or interpret existing records or data.
Not every federal record is available for public viewing. The Act contains nine exemptions that allow the government to withhold information. But just because a request may fall within an exemption doesn't mean that the information will necessarily be withheld -- the government may release the information if it decides that doing so will not cause harm. These exemptions are:
When the requested information is contained in a report that includes exempt information, agencies and departments are required to segregate the nonexempt information and provide it. They must tell the requester which exemption was applied to the missing information and make a note, if possible, at the place where material was taken out.
Anyone, anywhere, and for any reason can make a FOIA request, including individuals (citizens and foreigners), corporations and other business entities, foreign governments (with some exceptions), and media and nonprofit groups.
A FOIA requester will be expected to pay for the request depending on what category the requester falls into.
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