In an attempt to make the government more transparent with the information it has collected about her, OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman is sending out personal Freedom of Information Act Requests to numerous government agencies. Bob speaks to Sarah about what it takes to FOIA yourself.
BOB GARFIELD: Here at On the Media we’re conducting an information-gathering operation of our own. Joining me now to talk about it is OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman. Sarah, welcome back to this side of the mic.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: So I came across this blog post about this woman who, basically on a whim, sent a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests about herself to different government agencies. And in her post she says she sort of forgot about them until one day she got this package from the FBI with their file on her. Ten years before, when she was 18, she’d participated in some minor local protest. She doesn’t ever actually explain what the protest was about.
And the FBI had a detail following her for a few days, and they have this 436-page report about that [LAUGHS], that five-day span. And they – they followed her to the movies. They say, “Subject exits vehicle and enters movie theater, subject entered ‘Lord of the Rings.’” At one point, they wrote that she went into a bakery and came out carrying what they believed to be either bread or food. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, so this woman who found out that the government was following her made you wonder whether they have files on you too, right? Tell me why you suspect that you’ve been watched.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: A few years ago I was making just like a mockumentary with a friend of mine. It was not political at all. It was just a silly mockumentary based on E-true Hollywood stories about this gender-neutral Indian pop star, a la Pat from Saturday Night Live who moves to America and has this tragic rise and fall from a cough syrup addiction. It was – just the most ridiculous thing ever.
I was in Eastern Washington State, and we needed an airport scene, like an outside-of-the-airport scene. So I go take like a five-minute exterior shot of this airport, and then I’m driving back to my parents’ house. A few minutes later I get pulled over by five different cars, unmarked. It turns out it was Secret Service. Dick Cheney was in town doing a fundraiser – this was, I think, in 2004. They had a good laugh with the footage that they saw when I explained to them the silly plot of what we were working on. And so, for sure, they have a file because they took down all of my information at the time.
BOB GARFIELD: You suspect there’s a file on you. In fact, you’re sure there’s somethin’ on you, and you just want to know – precisely what. How do you go about applying for this?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I found one website called GetMyFBIFile.com, and you can select which offices you want to send to, and then it’ll give you form letters to print out with the addresses and everything. If you don’t want to do that, you can even go to the different departments themselves, and they all have a privacy office or some version of that, that gives you instructions on how to make your own FOIA request.
But I just used this website. I generated like ten different letters I sent to local FBI offices in the different places that I’ve lived. I sent to the main FBI headquarters – CIA, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security.
BOB GARFIELD: Department of Agriculture, NASA.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: No Bob, not them.
BOB GARFIELD: When this stuff does start coming back to you, will you come back and update us?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I will, but some of it might be redacted.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
Sarah, thank you.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Abdurrahman is a producer for On the Media. Go to onthemedia.org to see how you too can go FOIA yourself.