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IV. How To Use This Guide

This report explains how to use the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974. It reflects all changes to the laws made since 1996. Major amendments to the Freedom of Information Act passed in 1974, 1986, and 1996. A major addition to the Privacy Act of 1974 was enacted in 1988. Minor amendments to the Privacy Act were made in 1989 and 1990. This Guide is intended to serve as a general introduction to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act.\11\ It offers neither a comprehensive explanation of the details of these acts nor an analysis of case law. The Guide will enable those who are unfamiliar with the laws to understand the process and to make a request. In addition, the complete text of each law is included in an appendix.

Readers should be aware that FOIA litigation is a complex area of law. There are thousands of court decisions interpreting the FOIA.\12\ These decisions must be considered in order to develop a complete understanding of the principles governing disclosure of government information. Anyone requiring more details about the FOIA, its history, or the case law should consult other sources. There has been less controversy and less litigation over the Privacy Act, but there is, nevertheless, a considerable body of case law for the Privacy Act as well. There are also other sources of information on the Privacy Act.

However, no one should be discouraged from making a request under either law. No special expertise is required. Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act is as simple as writing a letter. This Citizen's Guide explains the essentials.


\11\ This Guide is primarily intended to help the general public. It includes a complete explanation of the basics of the two laws. In the interest of producing a guide that would be both simple and useful to the intended audience, the committee deliberately avoided addressing some of the issues that are highly controversial. The committee cautions against treating the neutrally written descriptions contained in this report as definitive expressions of the committee's views of the law or congressional intent. The committee has expressed its views on some of these issues in other reports. See, for example, Security Classification Policy and Executive Order 12356, H. Rept. 97-731, 97th Cong. 2d sess. (1982); Who Cares About Privacy? Oversight of the Privacy Act of 1974 by the Office of Management and Budget and by the Congress, H. Rept. 98-455, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (1983); Electronic Collection and Dissemination of Information by Federal Agencies: A Policy Overview, H. Rept. 99-560, 99th Cong., 2d sess. (1986); Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1986, H. Rept. 99-832, 99th Cong., 2d sess. (1986) (report to accompany H.R. 4862). The latter report is a legislative report for a bill reforming the business procedures of the FOIA. The bill did not become law. The 1986 amendments to the FOIA were made by the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, Public Law 99-570. There were no committee reports in either House or Senate accompanying the Freedom of Information Reform Act.

\12\ See, e.g., U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Information and Privacy, Freedom of Information Case List (published biennially) and Freedom of Information Act Guide & Privacy Act Overview (published annually).