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Federal Government Information

The federal government distributes the staggering amount of information it creates in various ways. The U.S. Government Printing Office disseminates free, authentic, digital versions of key documents such as the U.S. Code, Congressional Record, Federal Register, and the Code of Federal Regulations via its FDSYS portal. (It also supplies these and many additional titles in print and or microform to selected libraries nation-wide via its Federal Depository Library Program.)

The U.S. Supreme Court hosts a robust website that features a myriad of information about current and recent cases, as well as links to the full-text bound volumes of the U.S. Reports back to volume 502. The U.S. Courts’ website has a lot of information about the federal court system, though federal appellate, district and bankruptcy opinions and related court documents are more easily retrieved (if at a nominal cost) from PACER.

Beyond these sources of primary federal law (statutes, regulations, and court opinions), access to federal documents can be more of a challenge. Federal agencies are supposed to make documents that they themselves rely upon available to citizens, often through the respective agencies’ websites these days. Of course, there are some exceptions, such as documents that are deemed “classified” or “top secret.”

Of course, the federal government declassifies information, as well. On Aug. 16, 2013, the CIA acknowledged the existence of (and provided a map of) the elusive Area 51 in the Nevada desert. The reports indicate that the government used Area 51 for testing the U-2 and OXCART aerial surveillance programs, disappointing (if not convincingly) people who have been speculating about or trying to expose alien- and UFO-related activities at the site. The declassified information actually was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the George Washington University’s National Security Archive (NSA), about eight years ago.

While Richelson’s request was on behalf of GWU, there are other examples of heroic, if possibly obsessive, attempts by individuals to obtain and disseminate government documents obtained via FOIA requests. One example is John Greenewald’s The Black Vault, which hosts over 727,800 pages of FOIA documents requested during the past 17 years. (The site is free, but registration may be required.)

During a recent interview, Mr. Greenewald said that, while he had waited over a decade for several FOIA documents to be delivered, the record was 13 years for one document. He also reiterated that he plays by the FOIA rules — some documents are supplied, but are almost completely redacted. He does not accept documents submitted by individuals on the FOIA research site, though he has started a separate “Case File” section that accepts “open” submissions from people.

Mr. Greenewald also clearly distinguished himself from another potential source of government information — the leaker of classified federal government information. (Spoiler alert: those who wish to work for the government some day probably should not spend an inordinate amount of time perusing leaked information.) Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his part in leaking secret government data via WikiLeaks. Edward Snowden, the other recent notorious leaker of government information, has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. (The United States would like him back to stand trial.) The federal government maintains that there are internal mechanisms and/or more formal whistleblower programs for people who are concerned about specific documents or procedures to use, instead of “leaking” the information.

To summarize, there are a variety of ways to obtain federal government information: formal or informal distribution from the government itself; declassification of previously-classified information by the government, either on its own initiative or in response to a FOIA request; a “traditional” FOIA request (of any needed government document not subject to a FOIA exception); information obtained from an unauthorized leaker; and information disclosed by a whistleblower through proper channels.