At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966 and amended multiple times over the years, ensures that individuals may have access to information generated by all executive branch departments, agencies and offices of the U.S. federal government. The law does not cover information generated by Congress or by the federal judiciary, however.
However, some provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed shortly after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001 and reauthorized in 2011 reversed some rights afforded by the FOIA so it may not be possible to get some things that once were available under the original law, depending on circumstances that are particular to your information search.
Requests for information under FOIA provisions must be specific enough that the agency can identify what the information seeker is requesting. The FOIA identifies nine exemptions designed to safeguard national security, trade secrets, law-enforcement investigations, foreign-policy actions, and privacy rights of government officials, along with geological information about the location of oil wells! All states have their own versions of the FOIA that spell out access to state government records.
So, for example, under FOIA statutes, you cannot ask for the personal health records of the current Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. As an official in the executive branch of the U.S. government (Department of Defense), his personal health records are protected by one of the FOIA exemptions for privacy rights of government officials. But under FOIA statutes, you can request the name, service number, rank, dates of service, awards and decorations, city/town and state of the last known address for any veteran who served in the U.S. military, including the Chief of Staff. If a veteran is deceased, you can also get the place of birth, geographical location of death and the place of burial. All of this information about that individual is available to anyone who requests it and releasing it to requesters is not considered a violation of the veteran’s or the veteran’s family’s privacy.