Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Requests

Mission: To administer a records disclosure program in the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) that is in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. sec. 552 (as amended by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (PDF), Pub. L. No. 110-175, 121 Stat. 2524) generally provides that any person (video) (with the exception of another Federal agency, a fugitive from the law, or a representative of a foreign government) has the right, enforceable in court, to request access to any existing record of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government unless the information in those records is protected from disclosure by one or more of the nine exemptions that qualify an agency’s need to withhold records from the public.

Records that, generally, may be protected from disclosure (video) are: properly classified material; limited kinds of purely internal agency personnel rules and practices; matters exempt from disclosure by other statutes; trade secrets or commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential; inter- or intra- agency communications that represent the deliberative, pre-decisional process, attorney work product, or attorney-client privileged records; personnel, medical, and similar files containing information that would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; law enforcement records to the extent that one of six specific harms could result from disclosure; matters relating to the regulation or supervision of financial institutions; and geological and geophysical information on oil wells. The FOIA provides for access to “reasonably described” records. This means a requester must describe the actual document(s) sought to provide sufficient details to permit a search with reasonable effort utilizing existing indices or search tools. The FOIA does not require an agency to create a record, collect information, conduct research, analyze data, answer questions, render opinions, or provide subjective evaluations. Requesters must ask for existing records, in writing.

Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. Sec. 552a) regulates the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal executive branch agencies to balance the government’s need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy.

The Act focuses on four basic policy objectives:

  1. To restrict disclosure of personally identifiable records maintained by agencies;
  2. To grant individuals increased rights of access to agency records maintained on themselves;
  3. To grant individuals the right to seek amendment of agency records maintained on themselves upon a showing that the records are not accurate, relevant, timely, or complete; and
  4. To establish a code of “fair information practices” which requires agencies to comply with statutory norms for collection, maintenance, and dissemination of records.

Similar to the FOIA, the Privacy Act provides individuals with the right to seek access to agency records. However, under the Privacy Act, an individual (defined as a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien) may only seek access to their own record(s), or to any information pertaining to them, if such information is maintained by The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) within a Privacy Act system of records and is not exempt from release under the provisions of the law. In addition, any requests to amend an agency record are limited to correcting factual errors and not matters of official judgement, such as performance ratings, or subjective judgements that reflect an individual’s observation, evaluation or opinion.