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The FBI's New FOIA Policy Is a Big Step Backward

Dust off your fax machine. The FBI is planning to take a big step backward for government transparency.

As of March 1, the Bureau will no longer accept Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests via email. Anyone seeking public records from the FBI will have to use a new online portal — or send requests via fax or snail mail.

Online FOIA portals may seem like a good idea in theory, but government agencies make them difficult to use — with way too many burdensome requirements.

The Freedom of Information Act gives us a legal right to request public records, which allow journalists and watchdogs to hold the government accountable. FOIA requests uncovered harmful covert operations like COINTELPRO — an FBI program designed to dismantle civil rights groups, among others — and also exposed government surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists.

Our friends at MuckRock, which helps journalists and others access public records, raised the alarm when the terms of service of the new FBI portal came to light. These include arbitrary restrictions that aren’t consistent with the law:

  • Requests can’t be longer than 3,000 characters.
  • Individuals aren’t eligible for the reduced fees available to media outlets, meaning that freelance journalists and others will have to pay extra when filing requests.
  • Memos, emails and other internal communications appear to be off-limits to requesters — a restriction that undermines government transparency.

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While these terms of service might be improved going forward, the FBI has shown that it can and will arbitrarily change them without public comment.

MuckRock founder Michael Morisy told us he’s concerned about what this step backward signals for government transparency. “The FBI is a hugely important agency, and if the FBI gets away with it, we worry that a lot of other agencies will follow suit.”

Freedom-of-information advocates have been fighting with the federal government about FOIA for a long time. And this isn’t the first time a government agency has spent taxpayer money to make public records less accessible.

You can help by signing our petition urging the FBI to keep accepting email requests and cut out arbitrary restrictions when it launches its online FOIA portal on March 1.

Given the Trump administration's hostile attitude toward the press and activists, we need our government to be more transparent, not less.

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Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan irects Free Press’ journalism programs.

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