Government records are fundamental to understanding official policies and the decision-making processes of our leaders. They can be vital resources for a journalist following a breaking news story about government misconduct, a military veteran’s family seeking information about benefits, or a student writing a history paper. Government documents provide first-hand, real-time accounts of events as they unfolded, generally without the editorial filter that characterizes secondary sources like books and news articles.
This guide, Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone: A National Security Archive Guide, provides a comprehensive overview of how to obtain documents from federal executive branch agencies. It focuses primarily on the Freedom of Information Act process. But it also briefly treats other means of accessing government records, including through publicly available sources and through the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) process for obtaining previously classified records.
"The Freedom of Information Act is one of the glories of American democracy, yet--like democracy--making the law actually work requires real effort both inside and outside of government. Based on more than two decades of FOIA experience here at the National Security Archive, we offer this guide to help make the law work for you."
- From the Preface, Tom Blanton, Executive Director, National Security Archive
The guide is available electronically in PDF form. Use the links below to download the full guide or individual sections. The outline describes the content of each chapter, which can be downloaded in smaller PDF files by clicking on the linked title for each chapter or section.
Effective FOIA Requesting For Everyone (Full Guide - PDF, 5 MB)
Table of Contents
List of Figures
About This Guide
How to Use This Guide
Chapter 1 - Introduction: What is the FOIA?
History of the FOIA
Politics and the FOIA
Chapter 2 - First Steps: Getting Started with the FOIA
Preparing to File a FOIA Request
What Records May I Request?
Where Do I Send My FOIA Request?
Developing a FOIA Strategy
Chapter 3 - Pen to Paper: Writing a FOIA Request
Drafting a FOIA Request
Submitting Your FOIA Request
Keeping Track of Your Requests
What To Expect After Submitting Your Request
Following Up On Your Request
Chapter 4 - Another Way: Mandatory Declassification Review
What is Mandatory Declassification Review?
Should I Use MDR or FOIA?
Filing an MDR Request
How Do I Appeal an MDR Denial?
Chapter 5 - A Second Look: Appealing Agency Denials
May I Appeal?
Should I Appeal?
When Must I Appeal?
Drafting an Appeal
Crafting Appeal Arguments
Arguments Regarding Specific FOIA Exemptions
Chapter 6 - Going to Court: Litigating Your FOIA Request
May I Litigate?
Should I Litigate?
What Issues May I Litigate?
When May I File a FOIA Lawsuit?
Where May I File a FOIA Lawsuit?
Glossary of Key Terms and Acronyms
Federal Agencies Subject to the FOIA
Sample Request Letters
How to Read Agency Documents
The Freedom of Information Act
Executive Order 12958 (as amended)
LEGAL NOTE: None of the information contained in this guide should be considered legal advice, nor is the National Security Archive available to provide legal advice. Although we have striven to present accurate and useful information about the Freedom of Information Act in this guide, we recommend that you consult a lawyer if you need professional advice about your particular situation or if you intend to file a FOIA lawsuit.