Sunday, May 31, 2020

My experience with the US FOIA program

Since I no longer have any active cases I think it’s time to write a summary of my experience with the US freedom of information act program.

The good:

1). Everyone can request files using the FOIA program. This is really useful for those of us that are non-US citizens.

2). The agencies involved respond in a professional manner, assign case numbers, send letters detailing the progress of the case etc.

3). The FOIA departments that I had contact with responded quickly to emails.

Overall, from 2012 till 2018 I received 1 file from the CIA FOIA department, 1 file from the US national archives FOIA department and 20 files from the NSA FOIA department.

Total page count for this material was about ~1.300. So, I’m satisfied with the material I received.

The bad

1). The main problem was that my cases took too long to be processed. Files that had been previously declassified were sent to me quickly, however new cases that required review of the documents took years to complete.

Most of the files that I received from the NSA were requested in early 2012 and released in the second half of 2017.

2). For several of my cases the NSA FOIA department’s response was that the relevant files had been sent to the US national archives (NARA) and that I should request them from them instead. However, the document transfer numbers they gave me were in all cases incorrect.

In fact, it was the opinion of the NARA FOIA staff that the NSA was purposefully misleading me. I do not believe that to be true, instead I believe that they simply do not always know what kind of material they are sending to NARA.

The ugly

For whatever reason some of the people at the US national archives FOIA department were rude and/or passive aggressive. I did not let that interfere with my research till 2018 when I finally had enough and I cancelled my remaining two cases.


In conclusion I’d like to say that I am grateful for the existence of the FOIA program since I received many interesting files that contained valuable information.

Ideally, I would have liked to receive this material years in advance but c'est la vie…

Having said that, if I had to use the FOIA program again today I wouldn’t do it due to the great delay in the processing of the cases and the NSA FOIA department’s strategy of ‘reviewing’ a case for years and then informing me that the file has been sent to NARA and giving me incorrect transfer numbers.

If you are a US citizen it’s best to use the mandatory declassification review program. If you (like me) are not a US citizen, then there are simply no good choices…

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