BOB GARFIELD: The Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, can be a lean, mean, fighting machine in the battle against excessive government secrecy. The FOIA request is not a difficult tool to wield. It takes just a little know-how and a lot of patience. Russ Kick knows the drill. Independently, he's filed hundreds of FOIA requests, and they have yielded some unforgettable results. You're probably familiar with his work. He filed the FOIA request that led to his receiving hundreds of pictures of military coffins returning from Iraq. In April, he made the photos available on his website and left every other journalist in the country dumbfounded. How did he do it? Well, he followed the instructions and filed a request. Russ Kick joins me from Tucson, Arizona to tell us how it's done. Russ, welcome to On the Media.
RUSS KICK: Hi. Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: You've filed hundreds of FOIA requests over the years. What's the longest you've had to wait before getting a satisfactory response?
RUSS KICK: [LAUGHS] Several of my requests, over a year later, I get the acknowledgment that yeah, we're going to start working on this now. Usually it's more in, in the matter of a few months is how long it takes to either get what I want or get the rejection.
BOB GARFIELD: The fact that it takes so long, I gather, is one of the reasons more reporters don't more routinely take advantage of this avenue of, of research.
RUSS KICK: This is something that truly anybody in the country or anybody in the world can do. All you have to do, really, is send a letter to the FOIA office of the agency that you're interested in, and, and tell them what you want. You don't even need to be a citizen, actually.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you believe that FOIA is grossly under-utilized by American media?
RUSS KICK: Oh, definitely. There's been studies that have been done about who is using the FOIA, and it turns out that the media makes up just a tiny fraction of all the requests. It was something along the lines of ten percent.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any evidence to suggest that government agencies intentionally make the process as cumbersome and unrewarding as possible to discourage reporters who, after all, are on deadline, from getting involved in the process to begin with?
RUSS KICK: Oh, definitely. If you remember the strategy game Othello, the slogan for that is: A Minute to Learn; A Lifetime to Master. And that's pretty much the way it is with FOIA, [LAUGHTER] because you can learn how to make a request in a minute, but dealing with the stonewalling, the excessive fees and just sometimes outright lies -- that's what takes a long time to learn how, how to work with.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, FOIA-Master, bestow on us your, [LAUGHTER] your wisdom.
RUSS KICK: Well, one thing is, under FOIA you have one appeal when you're denied. Always use it. Because there are these various numbered exemptions having to do with national security or personal privacy -- they have to name specifically at least one of those. If they don't, which sometimes happens, then you've really got a great case for an appeal. But even if they do name them, you know, you try to think like a lawyer and, and figure out why they're wrong to have used that exemption. Most of the time, I've found the appeals don't work. But it's still important to try. And another thing is one of the tactics that the CIA is using, and they're one of the most popular agencies that get FOIAs, they will automatically send you a letter back saying that you have to agree to pay at least 150 dollars for each request before they'll even start processing. And the reason this is something of a trick is because they're hoping, of course, that most people will just say well forget it. You know, I, I can't afford that. The way I get around that is when I send any request into the CIA, I automatically tell them in the letter that yes, I agree to pay up to 150 dollars for this request. And so far I've never had to pay near that much.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let's say I want to find out who paid for President Bush's flight suit in his stunt where he landed on the aircraft carrier [LAUGHTER] to declare the mission accomplished in Iraq. I put a letter in the mail to the FOIA administrator at the Department of Defense and say I'm willing to pay 150 dollars for the information. Please send me the appropriate documentation? That's it?
RUSS KICK: That's pretty much it. Yeah. The only thing is, when you write the letter, you, you have to say, you know, something along the lines of this is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. And after that, just tell them what you want. It also helps if you tell them whether or not you're an independent researcher or a member of the media or something like that, just so that they can assess fees. And if you're a member of the media, it actually -- all fees are supposed to be waived. You know, you don't have to tell them anything about why you want this material, and by law they're not allowed to ask you that either.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Russ. Well, thank you very much.
RUSS KICK: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Russ Kick is an expert and heavy user of the Freedom of Information Act. His latest book is The Disinformation Book of Lists, published by The Disinformation Company. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, reporters who ignored a leak face legal jeopardy just for listening. And America's number one "man on the street."