The Freedom of Information Project

College of DuPage - Geography Department - Prof. Yearman

One of the goals of this class is to expose students to new research materials and methods. The United States offers a tremendous opportunity for the public to access government documents using a law entitled the Freedom of Information Act. From time to time in class, my students will actually read State Department cables, CIA documents and other materials which have been released pursuant to FOIA. Not only do these documents provide great insight, but they offer an often-fascinating look at how government operates. As Noam Chomsky once said, "You can learn a lot from the documents, and you can learn a lot from the fact certain people don't want you to see them."

As of June 14, 2006 I have more than 200 FOIA requests pending with the federal government (particularly the State Department). These requests cover a wide array of topics, from the "war on drugs" to having the State Department do a search for any records they have related to my institution.

Student FOIA Assignment

You will be writing and filing a FOIA request for this class, and I have created this page to help you in this task. I know it's likely your first time to use the FOIA, and it can seem like a strange task. Ultimately, though, it has its rewards. You will write at least one FOIA request to the State Department, seeking documents on a topic of your choice from December 1, 2005- present. Use this FOIA Letter Template.

Simply writing and mailing the FOIA request will account for 5% of your final grade.

Basic FOIA Information (excerpted from the National Security Archive)

  • What is the FOIA?

Enacted in 1966, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that establishes the public's right to obtain information from federal government agencies. The FOIA is codified at 5 U.S.C. Section 552. "Any person" can file a FOIA request, including U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, associations, and universities. In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, the Act was amended to force greater agency compliance. It was also amended in 1996 to allow for greater access to electronic information.

  • Who can I send a FOIA request to?

The FOIA applies to Executive Branch departments, agencies, and offices; federal regulatory agencies; and federal corporations. Congress, the federal courts, and parts of the Executive Office of the President that function solely to advise and assist the President, are NOT subject to the FOIA. Records obtainable under the FOIA include all "agency records" - such as print documents, photographs, videos, maps, e-mail and electronic records - that were created or obtained by a Federal agency and are, at the time the request is filed, in that agency's possession and control.

  • Fees for educational use:

Preschools, public or private elementary or secondary schools, and institutions of graduate higher education, undergraduate higher education, professional education, or vocational education that operate a program(s) of scholarly research. Educational requesters are required to pay duplication costs, but are entitled to the first 100 pages without charge. They do not have to pay for search or review fees.

To see a chart of the FOIA process, click here.

Geography Students: Use this FOIA Letter Template.


This page last updated Maintained 28 November 2006 by Keith Yearman, Assistant Professor of Geography.

More Info:

To see the FOIA in action, visit the National Security Archive of George Washington University. The National Security Archive seeks declassification and release of government documents, and then broadly releases them to the public. See, for instance, the Archive's work on Henry Kissinger and Argentina, or its East Timor project.

Also, check out the Conoco-Somalia Declassification Project, which I've been working on for several years.

Here are several other projects I've been handling:

Juarez Declassification Project

Aceh Declassified

Haiti Refugee Policy

Export-Import Bank's Useless AIDS Relief Program


State, federal and some local agencies maintain a log of the requests they have received. These are sometimes quite useful, to see not only what has been requested, but who is doing the requesting. Here are some:

Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General - 2001 - 2006

Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General - 2000 - 2006

NASA's Office of Inspector General - 2000 - 2006

Environmental Protection Administration's Office of Inspector General - 2000 - 2006 (.xls file - quite large)

State of Illinois - Office of Executive Inspector General - 2004 - 2006

College of DuPage - 2006 (Word file)