The Freedom of Information Act request process can be frustrating and expensive, and backlogs have been an increasing problem. By the government’s own estimate, there were 159,741 requests in backlog in 2014 compared to 95,524 in 2013. For private investigators, attorneys, journalists and the general public, the short term need for information can make FOIA—with possibly months if not years of waiting around for responses—an ineffective source for investigations if a request is not granted expedited status.
However, there is a possible shortcut.
Depending on what you’re looking for, it’s worth investigating whether anyone else already sought the same or similar information—in which case, the information could and should be free, fast and easily accessible. By filing a “copycat” request for previously issued material, you can bypass long delays, processing and fees.
One useful resource for identifying past requests is the government’s FOIA database, which doesn’t include all agencies. Still, by searching this database, you can sort through tens of thousands of records by subject matter, requester or agency. In some cases, somebody may have already sought the information you’re after or uncovered other previously unknown records that might turn out to be relevant. What’s more, clicking through the requests, you’ll see cases where the responses already are posted online through the FOIA database, which eliminates the need to file a request at all.
Finally, you can test this system by searching the database for key words “Democratic” and “Republican” to see just how busy political opposition researchers have been over the past year, mining federal agency correspondence to and from presidential and other candidates. Sometimes, they’ll unearth an obscure letter, perhaps years or even decades old, that might contrast with a candidate’s stated position today, in which case you can definitely count on seeing it again—this time, splashed across your television screen come campaign ad season in a glitzy attack ad.
– Jim McElhatton