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Limits of Full Text Searching: Finding FOIA Docs

The federal government posts a fair amount of material requested by citizens under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) online. They do this in part so they don’t have to respond to multiple requests for the same material. An of example of this that I love to use to document the feds’ disturbing tendency to surveil harmless people when looking for national security risks is the FBI electronic FOIA reading room.

But if you don’t know whether an agency has an electronic FOIA reading room, it can be confusing searching for FOIA related materials. One way that I started looking for this type of material was to toss the term “foia” into a usa.gov search along with my search term. In this way I was easily able to locate the CIA’s 5,000 pages on the US involvement in overthrowing the elected government of Guatemala in 1954.

But try this technique with other countries, like say Cameroon and while you get a lot of results, nothing seems quite on point. Why is this? Mostly because many federal pages quite rightly have a link to their FOIA information page. This page usually has information on how to contact the agency to make a FOIA request and sometimes has a link to an electronic FOIA reading room. In some cases, like that for the State department, the reading room is a little bare, consisting mostly of annual reports.

If we had a government web with good metadata or could otherwise catalog FOIA related materials, then finding FOIA related documents would be a lot easier. But as it is, people are left with many results to sift through for a few nuggets of information.

And if you’re reading this and are thinking “Why doesn’t he know about ______, which provides gov’t wide access to documents released under FOIA?”, then by all means let me know about in comments.

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