May 29, 2004: Headlines: FOIA: Freedom of Information: The National Security Archive: Tips and Tricks to Using the FOIA

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By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Saturday, May 29, 2004 - 12:57 pm: Edit Post

Tips and Tricks to Using the FOIA

Tips and Tricks to Using the FOIA

Tips and Tricks to Using the FOIA

Tips and Tricks to Using the FOIA

By William Ferroggiaro, Director, Freedom of Information Project

1) Do your RESEARCH first!

* A FOIA request should be an information-gathering tool of last resort, as it can be time-consuming and costly.

* Know your issue before you make a request. Read all the literature on your topic and, if possible, correspond with or interview the principal officials.

* Ascertain whether the information is already publicly available. First and foremost, contact agency websites, including their online FOIA reading rooms, which agencies are required to maintain. For documents dated prior to the mid-1970's, contact the National Archives. Also, Congress is a natural source for material on public policy. Finally, contact public interest groups or other organizations that have interest in your topic.


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 and "fishing expeditions" are wasteful in time (yours, and the governmentís) and resources (yours, and the governmentís).

* 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 cannot search "escalation of tension", but can search "military assistance". Also, provide accurate titles and dates, full names, etc. In other words, assist the person in doing the search by providing key items of information.

* Keep your request brief, avoiding narratives, as they will likely confuse your intent. Don't write two-page supporting essays for your request, as they will only create confusion for the FOIA Officer.

3) TARGET your 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, for example, have individual FOIA offices with each unit. 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.

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.


* Correspondence. Every request is a potential lawsuit; therefore, you ought to note all substantive telephone contacts in addition to the agency correspondence you receive. 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.


* Consider the FOIA officer receiving you 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. Again, 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.


The public has a right to government information, as it is inherently the publicís information held in trust by government as it undertakes activities on the publicís behalf. That said, the system of access to this information, the Freedom of Information Act, works best when you use some finesse. Be sufficiently prepared, not unknowledgeable. Be firm, not confrontational. Be diligent, not frivolous. Above all, be patient. And exercise your rights as a citizen!

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Story Source: The National Security Archive

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; FOIA; Freedom of Information



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