FOIA: A Guide to Accessing Federal Agency Records

History of FOIA
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on Independence Day, 1966. It had been the subject of congressional debate since 1955 when it was originally proposed. The act provides a formal procedure for requesting access to federal executive agency records. FOIA was revised in 1974 in order to make it easier and less expensive to obtain requested information. The amendments to FOIA gave agencies 10 working days to acknowledge a request, set reasonable photocopying charges, and created a procedure for appealing denied requests. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) amendment was passed. The amendment made it possible for individuals to request documents produced in electronic format, and changed the time limit for agencies to acknowledge a request from 10 to 20 working days. The amended FOIA can be found as PL104-231, 110 Stat 3048, 5 USC 552

What can by requested with FOIA?
FOIA requests can only be made for federal executive agency files. Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and state or local agencies are not subject to FOIA. The act provides access to all federal agency records that are not protected from disclosure by one of nine exemptions or three exclusions (see Appendix A). The act pertains to agency files or records only and does not cover published documents. Many published documents are available through libraries that participate in the Federal Depository Library Program. In Milwaukee, the UWM Libraries and the Milwaukee Public Library (central) are a resource for such materials. The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications is the premier resource for locating published U.S. government documents. For a good list of FOIA related documents, see the U.S. Department of Justice, Making a FOIA Request at http://www.justice.gov/oip/04_1.html or FOIA Reference Materials at http://www.justice.gov/oip/04_7.html.

What to do before making a FOIA request?
The information can often be found by searching the Internet. Requestors can save time and money by checking to see if the information being sought is available elsewhere before making a FOIA request. The E-FOIA amendments require that agencies make certain documents available online through their electronic FOIA reading rooms. See the list below for a sample of such reading rooms. Several federal agencies make their most requested documents available through their online reading rooms. Information gained through previous FOIA requests are sometimes made available online by the person originally requesting the material. Searching an Internet search engine like Google, http://www.google.com/, is a good way to begin looking for information posted by those who have made prior FOIA requests. Google Uncle Sam, http://www.google.com/unclesam, is a search engine designed to search government websites and is a good place to look for information posted by federal agencies in electronic reading rooms.

Selected Examples of FOIA Reading Rooms

Department of Justice
http://www.justice.gov/oip/04_2.html

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/FOIA/

Department of State
http://www.state.gov/m/a/ips/

National Endowment for the Arts
http://www.arts.gov/about/FOIA/FOIARoom.html

For a list of Federal agency FOIA web sites, see:
http://www.justice.gov/oip/other_age.htm

How to make a FOIA request?
There is no central agency that handles all FOIA requests. To expedite a FOIA request, it is important that the request be sent to the appropriate agency. The Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) of the U.S. General Services Administration may provide assistance in determining where to send a FOIA request. The FCIC website, http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/, may provide telephone numbers and email address that can be used to request assistance. The general resource available at FCIC, Your Right To Federal Records, http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/fed_prog/foia/foia.htm, can also be of assistance. The U.S. Government Manual is the official handbook of the federal government and can also be used to help determine where to direct a FOIA request. The manual describes the programs within each federal agency and lists the names of top personnel and the addresses of the agencies. The manual is available online at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action?collectionCode=GOVMAN and is also available in print form at most libraries. When requesting documents, the requestor should include as much information about the requested documents as possible. Any facts that can be provided such as the dates, authors, subjects, or title of the documents will increase the likelihood that the agency will find the documents and also decrease the wait time of the requestor. The envelope containing the request should also be marked "FOIA Request" in order to route the request to the appropriate department as soon as possible. For a sample FOIA request letter, refer to Appendix B. Most FOIA requests must be made by print mail, not electronic mail.

How much will it cost?
Agencies are permitted to charge fees to FOIA requestors for copying and search expenses. For noncommercial requests, agencies do not charge for the first two hours of search time or the first 100 pages of document copying. After this, the fees vary among agencies with most charging between $40 and $60 an hour for research time and $.05 to $.10 per page for duplication. All agencies will notify individuals seeking information if a request will involve large fees. To expedite requests, it is recommended that requestors state the amount of fees that they are prepared to pay and request that the agency contact them should the costs exceed the stated amount.

How long will it take?
Agencies are required to acknowledge a request within 20 working days. However, the bulk of requests take much longer to be filled. In general, simple and well-described requests will be answered faster than voluminous or vaguely described requests.

What to do if a request is denied?
Agencies are allowed to deny requests only when they are exempt from disclosure based on one of the nine exemptions or three exclusions (see Appendix A). When a request has been denied, the agency must provide an estimate of the amount of material being denied, explain the reasons for the denial, and inform the requestor of their right to appeal. To appeal a denied FOIA request, send a letter to the agency stating your reasons for believing the denial was wrong. This should be done within 30 days of receiving the denial and should include as much information about the request as possible including any numbers assigned to the denied request by the agency. The agency has 20 working days to consider the appeal. If the appeal is rejected or if the agency does not respond in the required time period then the requestor has the right to take the matter to court. The requestor may file a FOIA lawsuit in the U.S. District Court where they live, where they have their principle business, where the documents are kept, or in the District of Columbia. The agency will then have to prove, in court, that the withheld information is covered by one of the nine exemptions or three exclusions. If the requestor wins the case the court may order the defending agency to pay the court costs and the requestors' attorney fees.

APPENDIX A

Exemptions

  1. Items specifically required by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of the national defense or foreign policy.
  2. Items related solely to the internal rules and practices of an agency.
  3. Items specifically exempted from disclosure by a statute.
  4. Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.
  5. Interagency or Intraagency memoranda or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency.
  6. Personal and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
  7. Investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes except to the extent available by law to a party other than an agency.
  8. Items contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.
  9. Geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.

Exclusions
  1. Records relating to ongoing or undisclosed criminal investigations when disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
  2. Informant records maintained by a criminal law enforcement agency under the informant's name or personal identifier. The agency is not required to confirm the existence of these records unless the informant's status has been officially confirmed.
  3. Records maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation which pertain to foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism. When the existence of these types of records is classified, the FBI may treat the records as not subject to the requirements of FOIA.


 

APPENDIX B

Sample Letter

Date

Agency FIOA Officer
Name of Agency
Address
Re: Freedom of Information Act Request

Dear FOIA Officer,

Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552, I am requesting access to (provide a detailed description of the requested records).

I am willing to pay fees for this request up to a maximum of $______. If you estimate that the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me first.

If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific exemption you think justifies your refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available under the law.
Sincerely,

 

Name
Address
Phone (Optional)

jthull 12/21/2004; mod 12/27/2010


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