Looking for information on the IRS or NSA scandals, or just want to know how much money your representative gets from Wall Street? Perhaps you want to confirm that Area 51 exists and whether the government really researched UFOs in the 1950s. These five tools will help you answer some of these questions.
1. The Sunlight Foundation
This nonprofit is one of the best sources on the internet for information on what happens behind closed doors in Congress and down the road on K Street. It also offers informative research lessons and has tools to follow the money trail from special interest to representative. Originally focused on the happenings of the U.S. Congress, the site has broadened its scope to local and state government and even has an app for detecting sloppy journalism.
Bonus: If you're away from your computer, you can use the app on your Android or IOS device.
2. The Black Vault
The Black Vault is one of the largest online databases of declassified information. The Vault boasts over 650,000 pages of documents. You can search this vast library via source or subject, focusing on a range of conspiracies including Benghazi, 9/11, and FBI personal files.
3. Open Secrets
One of the best an well-known internet sources for tracking lobbying money, Open Secrets is a comprehensive database for political donations.
Pro tip: if you're preparing for an interview and want to know where a potential employer stands, search the Open Secrets database. You'll be surprised at what you might uncover.
4. Make Your Own FOIA Request
If all else fails, you can make your own Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA" or foy-yah) request. All government agencies are required to accept FOIA requests but can reject your request based on a list of reasons. Also, the request does come with a fee, but you can petition for a fee waiver if the request is in the public interest.
Pro tips: There are a number of sites with sample FOIA request letters that you can copy as well as fee waiver letters. If you're interested in getting a comprehensive view of the agency, try requesting the agency's FOIA logs — the logs of FOIA requests made by other people. You are less likely to get your request denied and you can get a sense of which requests have been successful.
5. The NSA Guide to "Google Hacking"
Perhaps the best kept secret of all of these is a 2007 NSA training book on performing "Google hack" revealed through a previous FOIA request. Although a bit dated, the guide provides a useful tutorial on how to find classified documents and other sensitive information with Google's spiders. Here's a brief summary of the book's hacking suggestions.
Caution: although this document is in the public domain and published by NSA, hackers have received criminal charges for using similar Google "hacks."