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FOIA: Shining light on a limited part of federal government

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

The Freedom of Information Act: It sounds so powerful, as if muttering the term will grant you immediate access.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case with Freedom of Information Act, more commonly referred to as FOIA.

FOIA is to the federal government what the state’s public records law is to North Carolina, with several exceptions, that is.

The president, most notably, is exempt from FOIA. So are his cabinet and immediate staff.

So is Congress, both House and Senate. Even the Supreme Court is exempt from FOIA.

In essence, the Freedom of Information Act shines light on only about one-third of federal government.

So what does it cover?

FOIA covers most federal executive agencies, as long as its address is not 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Freedom of Information Act, codified in 1966, makes the following information open to public inspection.

Each federal agency covered by FOIA must make the following information available to the public, information from which is taken directly from a 1996 FOIA amendment:

•Descriptions of its central and field organization and established places at which employees (and in the case of a uniformed service, members) from whom, and the methods whereby, the public may obtain information, make submittals or requests, or obtain decisions.

•Statements of general course and method by which its functions are channeled and determined, including the nature and requirements of all formal and informal procedures available.

•Rules of procedure, descriptions of forms available or the places at which forms may be obtained, and instructions as to the scope and contents of all papers, reports, or examinations.

•Substantive rules of general applicability adopted as authorized by law, and statements of general policy or interpretations of general applicability formulated and adopted by the agency; and each amendment, revision, or repeal of the foregoing.

The following information must be made available for public inspection and copying, pursuant to the 1996 amendment:

•Final opinions, including concurring and dissenting opinions, as well as orders, made in adjudication of cases.

•Statements of policy and interpretations that have been adopted by the agency and are not published in the Federal Register.

•Administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public.