the FOIA Work for You
1) Do your RESEARCH before you file a
- A FOIA request should be a research tool of last resort; it can
take a long time to obtain records and can be costly.
- Ascertain whether the documents you are seeking already are publicly
available. Review agency websites, including their online FOIA reading
rooms. For documents dated prior to the mid-1970's, contact the National
Archives and keep in mind that Congress is a natural source for material
on public policy. If you are associated with a research organization
such as a university, that subscribes to electronic research databases,
search for journals that reference pertinent documents, or databases
that store declassified documents such as https://nsarchive.chadwyck.com/.
Finally, contact public interest groups or other organizations that
have interest in your topic. There are a number of sources for already
declassified federal government records.
- Doing your research first will inform you as to the key events and
key decision-makers on your topic, help you pinpoint documents and
agencies in your requests, and keep you from requesting material extraneous
to your interest.
2) WRITE your request clearly; and be specific.
- Overly broad requests are wasteful in time (yours, and the government's)
and resources (yours, and the government's). Please keep in mind that
agencies only are required to search for documents under the FOIA,
not create them. You cannot ask an agency to do your research for
you. Only if you are fairly certain that a government agency will
have documents should you send a FOIA request.
- Be specific: assume the FOIA officer is not familiar with your topic.
As many agencies perform computerized searches for documents, use
key words and phrases. For example, an agency may not be able to search
"escalation of tension," but be able to search "military
assistance." Also, provide accurate titles and dates, full names,
and pertinent news stories discussing the subject of your request.
In other words, assist the person in doing the search by providing
key items of information.
- Keep your request brief, avoiding narratives, as they likely will
confuse the FOIA Officer. Don't write two-page supporting essays for
your request, as they will only create confusion for the FOIA Officer.
- To see sample FOIA requests click
3) TARGET your request.
- In addition to researching your topic, research the government to
find out where to send the request.
- Send your request to the agency most likely to hold the records.
While the Department of State and the CIA have one centralized FOIA
office, the military branches have individual FOIA offices in each
component. The FBI, among others, maintains records at headquarters
and in field offices. Contacting the main agency FOIA office to determine
the location of records can save delays in your responses; at a minimum,
they may agree to forward your request to the correct location. Also
review the agency's FOIA reference guide and handbook on its website
for information on how to target your request.
- It is worth your time to find out exactly which components of agencies
maintain the documents you are requesting. It will save time (weeks,
months or even years) in referrals.
4) Establish and maintain CONTACT with the agency.
- Agency response letters often identify a point-of-contact or case
officer for your FOIA request. If not, after a reasonable period of
time, call and check on the status of your request and identify the
case officer. Your effort will indicate to the FOIA officer your continued
interest in the request. The FOIA officer can then advise you of estimated
fees; can seek clarification of your request; can advise you of delays;
and can advise you if extraneous material is located.
- Don't harass your FOIA officer with too many calls or letters. Yours
is not the only case the agency has received. Also, consider that
at some agencies program (or policy) officers may also handle FOIA
requests, and your request is just one of many tasks they must undertake.
- Note all substantive telephone contacts in addition to the agency
correspondence you receive.
5) Stay ADMINISTRATIVELY accurate. Understand the
- Carefully follow the agency's own FOIA regulations and instructions
in correspondence. For example, while only some agencies may require
you to submit their denial letters with your appeal, it is helpful
to include them anyway. Lack of correspondence may at best delay their
response, and at worst allow them to not consider an appeal. Also,
as requests can become complex and documentation voluminous, it is
helpful to create a filing or tracking system for your own use.
- Timeframes. You cannot appeal an agency's lack of initial response
until the agency has had 20 business days to respond. Also, agencies
may, at their discretion, accept your appeal for a denial of documents
beyond their appeal period. Finally, the agency has 20 business days
to decide your appeal before you may file a complaint in federal court.
6) DELAYS in processing requests, while frustrating,
can be expected.
- Delays in processing FOIA requests occur at many agencies, and are
endemic at a handful of agencies. Most agency delays are short, perhaps
only a week or two. However, agencies that handle national security
information have delays ranging from a few months to several years.
These agencies maintain heavy backlogs due primarily to the time-and-resource
consuming review of classified material. Additionally, the number
of classified documents increased dramatically in the 1980's. Also,
in some instances, various agencies can have input into a single classified
document. Delays are exacerbated by the fact that, for most agencies,
FOIA is not an agency priority -- budget or otherwise -- meaning delays
will continue to plague the system.
7) Be REASONABLE.
- Consider the FOIA officer receiving your request. A well-written
request, helpful contact, and a non-confrontational manner on your
end will only aid the processing of your request. The FOIA officer
is often faced with bureaucratic or ideological intransigence within
his or her own agency. Pestering your FOIA contact at an agency may
mean jeopardizing a helpful source of information.
- Don't send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will
delay processing of yours - and others' - requests. Contact with the
FOIA officer will help you ascertain what is a useful exercise.