1) Do your RESEARCH before you file a FOIA request.
- 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 http://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 here.
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 FOIA Statutes.
- 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.