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FOIA Tip No. 9: Writing a Good FOIA Request Part II

January 20, 2010

Well, you have done your research and now know what you are going to ask for. Perhaps you’ve figured out how to phrase the subject of the request after reading FOIA Tip No. 4.  What else should you say in your letter to the agency?  Today we are going to tell you the essential components of a FOIA Request Letter.  BTW, many agencies now have online submission forms with windows to fill in or online guides that set out the specific information that they want, so definitely look for those before you mail or fax your request.

First of all, a FOIA request must be in writing and must be written in English. You cannot make a FOIA request over the phone. 

Second, your request should definitely include a few specifics:

  • The first sentence of your request letter should state, “Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I hereby request the following . . . .”  Part of the reason for specifying this is that agencies get lots of requests, including mandatory declassification review requests and Privacy Act requests.  If you are asking for information about yourself, you also can mention the Privacy Act.  It will trigger a broader search by the agencies, and you may get more information.
  • As we discussed before, there are lots of ways to describe what you want, but remember:
    1. Be clear and specific. Your FOIA request must reasonably describe the records you are asking for, which means that the text of your request must allow an agency employee to find the record(s) with a reasonable amount of effort. Assume the FOIA officer is not familiar with your topic. Many agencies search for documents electronically so, if you know them, you should list the relevant keywords and phrases.
    2. Make sure your request is reasonable in scope. Agencies are not required to process unreasonably broad requests or requests that require them to create documents.
    3. Provide a date range for records or a date of the event you are researching. Providing a date helps the agency narrow the scope of the request and find the documents you are most interested in. If you do not give a date range, the agency will search all of its records, which could generate hundreds or thousands of pages. This could lead to lengthy delays, and the agency could contact you to narrow the request.
    4. Provide accurate titles and full names, and include any news stories discussing the subject of your request. In other words, help agency employees by providing relevant pieces of information. If you are aware of common alternate spellings for names or other key words, you may consider including them to aid in the search. News stories or other supporting materials will help the person processing the request to understand its context.
    5. Keep your request brief. Include necessary supporting information, but avoid narratives or excessive supporting materials that may confuse agency staff.
    6. Specify whether you want the records in paper form or electronically. Agencies are required to release records in electronic form when requested, if they can reasonably do so.
  • You should let the agency know how much you are willing to pay in fees. Most agencies require that you commit to a minimum of $25, but if you know your request may involve a lot of records, you may want to commit to a higher amount. If it seems that the actual fees will exceed the amount of your commitment, the agency will contact you to either confirm your willingness to pay more or ask you to narrow the scope of your request in order to reduce the fees.  In some cases you are not required to pay fees or the fees may be waived.  We will cover those scenarios in a later FOIA tip.
  • Be sure that you provide the agency with a permanent address because most agency responses will arrive in the mail. If you do change addresses, be sure to notify the relevant agencies that you have moved.
  • At the end of your request, be sure to include a phone number, fax number, and/or e-mail address the agency may use to contact you with questions regarding your request.

Next time we will discuss whether you can get information without paying a fee or for a reduced fee. We’ll also discuss expedited processing and other timing issues in future posts.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2010 4:10 pm

    Meredith,

    Thanks for the FOIA tips. I really love this idea and have found all the previous posts really thoughtful and informative. Looking forward to more tips in the future.

  2. January 20, 2010 5:22 pm

    Glad it is useful. We would love to hear comments or questions about how to FOIA. Also, interested in other people’s tips.

  3. January 21, 2010 2:43 pm

    I am thinking of re-submitting requests made in the past 10 years in hopes of getting documents that would now no longer be redacted under the new executive order. Do you think it’s worth the time, and would the agency (Department of Justice, specifically the FBI) be likely to comply? On my first pass, I did get lots of pages, just with lots of black; appealed the redactions and got nowhere.

    • Meredith Fuchs permalink
      January 22, 2010 11:01 pm

      At some agencies they do not permit requests to be refiled until at least two years have passed since their decision to withhold. When we have documents withheld because of classified information (ex. 1 and 3) and two years have passed, we sometimes refile the request as an MDR and ask for the redacted material to be reviewed. Take a look at our post on mandatory declassification review in the FOIA tip series. Sometimes, a person mentioned in the records or about whom we requested records may have died and you can re-request records denied on ex. 6 or 7(c) grounds and tell the agency about the fact the person is dead. See our post in the FOIA tip series about how to request information about people (privacy issues). In terms of re-requesting after the passage of time, generally, and the new presumption in favor of disclosure, I think it is worth considereding whether to refile, expecially if exemptions 2, 4, or 5 were invoked. In addition, if there was a law enforcement investigation going on that has concluded, even the Ex. 7 withholding might no longer be relevant. So, look at the denial letters and redactions and see why the information was denied to assess your chances. Thanks for the question. I hope this helps.

  4. Trevor McPhee permalink
    May 18, 2010 10:05 am

    Anyone have any advice the willingness of agencies to accept a request for a “sample” of records from a known, and clearly defined, pool of records (e.g., first 10 records out of the 1000 in a particular file) or, in the alternative, an effective strategy for “reasonably describing” a smaller number of records (about which you know very little) from a pool you can clearly describe? The larger pool (which I may eventually want to request) is more than a million pages, but I would prefer to start by fighting over 10 or 100 records to avoid denial by “unreasonable” request and to be able to surrender and pay up front if they want to delay by arguing over fee status or fee waiver. I love this site. Thank you.

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