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FOIA Requests

FOIA refers to the Freedom of Information Act. You may never have to use this Act, but it is available to anyone who requires it. I've used it a few times, especially when I lived near the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a military installation in Harford County, Maryland. It is an interesting exercise, and while many requests are fruitless, an occasional gem is uncovered.

Anyone may request specific information from the military, FBI, or other national government agency, office, department, or bureau. The information requested must be for something "on record" (books, maps, papers, or photos). Requests can't be made for physical objects, codes, software, or personal records. The record must exist, as the government isn't obligated to create a new record just for your request. The information requested must be in "public interest," in that it provides information about the performance of the government's duties. The Act doesn't authorize "fishing expeditions." Some specific detail of the record must be given by the requester: title, index citation, subject area, date of record, originator, or description of the circumstances which resulted in the record's creation. A request must "reasonably describe" the record requested. (For complete details, see the House Commitee on Government Operation's A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records, Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1991.)

This may seem complicated, but it just means that you can't send a FOIA request to the U.S. Army asking them to send you a copy of all bigfoot sightings by military personnel. If you are aware of a possible sighting by a soldier on a training mission in Minnesota, you can send a request to a Minnesota base (wherever that might be), asking them to send you a copy of the record of that sighting, giving them the details that you are aware of. You may or may not receive any positive responses from them, but you will receive several letters from the appropriate FOIA officers.

I've received negative replies for many requests for information on actual sightings, but I have received other information from the government. While trying to figure out if any of the agencies on APG were using larger primates that may have escaped in the past, I asked them to send me a listing of all primates on the installation. Three species were named in their reply.

A second request brought a negative response, but gave me the name of an official I could contact in the future. I was asking about a small population of unusual black cats reported from Spesutie Island, but the area's Federal Game Warden hadn't seen any in the many years he had been on the island.

For many requests, creativity is in order. I've heard several investigators say that FOIA requests about military/creature events are useless, but with a little ingenuity (and patience, because these requests can take months for them to answer), some relevant information may be obtained.

You may not be able to request records from some local or state government agencies, but many states have "open record" laws. Check in your library's reference section to see if they are applicable in your area.

No matter where you request the information, politeness is the best method to achieve success. The military ingrains all personnel with a policy of "Need To Know." There is a high price to pay if even the smallest secret is leaked. A rigid bureaucratic system and this policy make it difficult to get information. Just remember that FOIA officers are willing to help you if you treat them as fellow human beings, and not as mindless government automatons.

 

A Sample FOIA Trail

On one occasion, I sent two requests to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Harford County, Maryland. The first question concerned a report of a gorilla-like creature that the APG military police had received in August, 1973, and the second asked for a list of the species of primates currently held on APG premises. The letter was sent January 26, 1993. In response to that letter, I received:

1) A letter from the Chief, Civil Law Division, advising me that my requests had been forwarded to the Test and Evaluation Command Administrative Services Branch, which handles the FOIA requests for APG. (February 9, 1993)

2) A letter from the Chief, Administrative Services Division, informing me that my first question was being forwarded to the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground Support Activity Commander, and the second question was being forwarded to the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, because any primates on APG are supposed to be under their subordinate command, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. (February 18, 1993)

3) A letter from the Installation Freedom of Information Act Officer stating that my first question was being forwarded to the Directorate of Law Enforcement and Security. (February 19, 1993)

4) A letter from the Lieutenant Colonel, Medical Service Corps, Secretary of the General Staff, informing me that three species of primates (owl, macaque, and rhesus monkeys) are housed at the ASAMRICD facility. (February 25, 1993)

5) A letter from the Chief Counsel and Staff Judge Advocate stating that no information on the August 1973 event was found during a search for relevant documents and my request had been forwarded to the Department of the Army for preparation of a denial letter. (March 3, 1993)

6) A letter from the Chief, Administrative Law Division, Department of the Army, stating that no records for the August 1973 event had been found. (March 10, 1993).

It only took a little over a month for all of this to occur. Was it worth the 29¢ stamp? Certainly. I gained some information and learned a little about government bureaucracy. Do I believe that the August 1973 report never occurred? It may not have been officially recorded, or any reports may have been placed in a file that wasn't searched. I have no way of determining how thorough their search was. The best way of getting information on it now would be to find a soldier who may have participated in the incident.

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