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A Condensed User Guide for FOIA Requests

February 3, 2011

Many agree that the anatomy of the FOIA is actually more art than science.

While Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to increase government accountability and transparency, the FOIA process may seem to further mystify government relations. Many agree that the anatomy of the FOIA is actually more art than science.

The National Security Archive has committed an entire section of its website, thirteen blog entries, and one 122-page manual, among other resources, to explain how users can effectively engage FOIA. My purpose in writing this blog is to provide you with a single reference for all FOIA inquiries. Ambitious, but possible through the invention of hyperlinks.

First, a brief overview. Enacted in 1966, the FOIA allows the public to access government records and requires agencies to respond within 30 days; however, the process may take months or, in the case of National Security Archive Analyst Bill Burr’s request filed to the US National Archives, 18 years! For the full history and politics of the FOIA, click here.

A FOIA request requires three simple steps: 1) research; 2) draft; and 3) submit your request.

Once the request is submitted, the government agency may either release the documents or ask for clarification. If the

A summary of the FOIA process

documents are not released or released only in part, you may then appeal, and if necessary, subsequently litigate. The diagram at right offers a quick, visual run-through of the process. You can also follow this supplementary step-by-step guide.

Here’s a breakdown of resources to help you with each step of the process:

Research. First, check here to make sure a FOIA request is needed. The documents you seek may already be available online. If not, preliminary research is essential to determining which agency you will contact and to drafting an informative request.

Draft. At this second stage, the FOIA request assumes its artful form. The key components include a statement, a subject, a fee status or waiver, and contact information; depending on your request, you may also need to include an argument for release and/or supporting documents and information. The Archive offers a two-part blog series and chapter 3 of its manual to help you write a request, including sample letters and strategic advice.

NOTE: Personal records are protected as privacy information under the FOIA and the Privacy Act. Click here for strategies that you can use to get privacy information released.

Submit. Find out which government agencies are subject to the FOIA. The Department of Justice’s web site lists principal FOIA contacts at federal agencies, as well as a reference guide.

NOTE: Before you pay the submission fee, read this two-part series. You may be exempt.

Receipt. You received your request! Now, what does that document say? It may look like hieroglyphics—but never fear: Archive bloggers offer a virtual Rosetta Stone to interpret those State Department and Defense Department documents.

Appeals Process and Litigation. Perhaps the agency withheld records or provided records with redacted portions. To determine if adverse determinations may be appealed, flip to chapter 5 of the manual. Follow up on your request by contacting the officer listed on the agency’s acknowledgement letter; you may be able to negotiate with the FOIA Public Liaison. Finally, if you are unsatisfied with the agency’s decision on the appeal, or if the agency has been unresponsive, FOIA affords you the right to file a lawsuit. Read chapter 6 of the manual for litigation information.

NOTE: You may receive a regular FOIA denial in which an agency refuses to release records or a Glomar Response, when an agency refuses to admit that documents exist. Find out how to be your own advocate with these tips.

Lastly, consider FOIA’s cousin: the Mandatory Declassification Review request (MDR). The MDR also allows you to obtain documents from government agencies, but differs from the FOIA in that it only applies to security classified records and is more narrowly focused. Read this handy summary or chapter 4 of the manual for further details.

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