FOIA – Using the Freedom of Information Act


The Freedom of Information Act entitles you to request any record maintained by a federal Executive branch agency. The agency must release the requested material unless it falls into one of nine exempt categories, such as “national security,” “privacy,” “confidential source” and the like, in which case the agency may but is not compelled to refuse to disclose the records.

This page contains all the material needed to make FOIA requests for records on an individual, an organization or on a particular subject matter or event.


Step 1 : Select the appropriate sample letter. Fill in the blanks in the body of the letter. Read the directions printed to the right of each letter in conjunction with the following instructions:

For organizational files: In the first blank space insert the full and formal name of the organization whose files you are requesting. In the second blank space insert any other names, acronyms or shortened forms by which the organization is or has ever been known or referred to by itself or others. If some of the organization’s work is conducted by sub-groups such as clubs, committees, special programs or through coalitions known by other names, these should be listed.

For individual files: Insert the person’s full name in the first blank space and any variations in spelling, nicknames, stage names, marriage names, titles and the like in the second blank space. Unlike other requests, the signatures of an individual requesting her/his own file must be notarized.

For subject matter or event files: In the first blank space state the formal title of the subject matter or event including relevant dates and locations. In the second blank space provide the names of individuals or group sponsors or participants and/or any other information that would assist the agency in locating the material you are requesting.

Step 2 : The completed sample letter may be removed, photocopies and mailed as is or retyped on your own stationary. Be sure to keep a copy of each letter.

Step 3 : Addressing the letters: Consult list of agency addresses.

FBI : A complete request requires a minimum of two letters. Send one letter to FBI Headquarters and separate letter to each FBI field office nearest the location of the individual, the organization or the subject matter/event. Consider the location of residences, schools, work and other activities.

INS : Send a request letter to each district office nearest the location of the individual, the organization or the subject matter/event. Address each letter to the FOIA/PA office of the appropriate agency. Be sure to make clearly on the envelope: ATTENTION–FOIA REQUEST.


You will notice that the sample letters include a request for fee waiver. Many agencies automatically waive fees if a request results in the release of only a small number of documents, e.g. 250 pages or less. Under the Act, you are entitled to a waiver of all search and copy fees associated with your request if the release of the information would primarily benefit the general public. However, in January 1983, the Justice Department issued a memo to all federal agencies listing five criteria which requesters must meet before they are deemed entitled to a fee waiver. Under these criteria, a requester must show that the material sought to be released is already the subject of “genuine public interest” and “meaningfully contributes to the public development or understanding of the subject”; and that she/he has the qualifications to understand and evaluate the materials and the ability to interpret and disseminate the information to the public and is not motivated by any “personal interest.” Finally, if the requested information is already “in the public domain,” such as in the agency’s reading room, no fee waiver will be granted.

You should always request a waiver of fees if you believe the information you are seeking will benefit the public. If your request for a waiver is denied, you should appeal that denial, citing the ways in which your request meets the standards set out above.


Customarily, you will receive a letter from each agency within 10 days stating that your request has been received and is being processed. You may be asked to be patient and told that requests are handled cafeteria style. You have no alternative but to be somewhat patient. but there is no reason to be complacent and simply sit and wait.

A good strategy is to telephone the FOIA office in each agency after about a month if nothing of substance has been received. Ask for a progress report. The name of the person you talk with and the gist of the conversation should be recorded. try to take notes during the conversation focusing especially on what is said by the agency official. Write down all the details you can recall after the call is completed. Continue to call every 4 to 6 weeks.

Good record keeping helps avoid time-consuming and frustrating confusion. A loose-leaf notebook with a section devoted to each request simplifies this task. Intervening correspondence to and from the agency can be inserted between the notes on phone calls so that all relevant material will be at hand for the various tasks: phone consultations, writing the newsletter, correspondence, articles, preparation for media appearances, congressional testimony or litigation, if that course is adopted.


After each agency has searched and processed your request, you will receive a letter that announces the outcome, encloses the released documents, if any, and explains where to direct an appeal if any material has been withheld. There are four possible outcomes:

1. Request granted in full: This response indicates that the agency has released all records pertinent to your request, with no exclusions or withholdings. The documents may be enclosed or, if bulky, may be mailed under separate cover. This is a very rare outcome.

Next Step: Check documents for completeness (see instructions below).

2. Request granted in part and denied in part: This response indicates that the agency is releasing some material but has withheld some documents entirely or excised some passages from the documents released. The released documents may be enclosed or, if bulky, mailed under separate cover.

Next step: Check documents released for completeness (see instructions below) and make an administrative appeal of denials or incompleteness (see instructions below).

3. Request denied in full: This response indicates that the agency is asserting that all material in its files pertaining to your request falls under one or the nine FOIA exemptions. These are categories of information that the agency may, at its discretion, refuse to release.

Next step: Make an administrative appeal (see instructions below). Since FOIA exemptions are not mandatory, even a complete denial of your request can and should be appeals.

4. No records: This response will state that a search of the agency’s files indicates that it has no records corresponding to those you requested.

Next step: Check your original request to be sure you have not overlooked anything. If you receive documents from other agencies, review them for indications that there is material in the files of the agency claiming it has none. For example, look for correspondence, or references to corr.


Step 1 : Before reading the documents, turn them over and number the back of each page sequentially. The packet may contain documents from the agency’s headquarters as well as several field office files. Separate the documents into their respective office packets. Each of these offices will have assigned the investigation a separate file number. Try to find the numbering system. Usually the lower right-hand corner of the first page carries a hand-written file and document number. For instance, an FBI document might be marked “100-7142-22”. This would indicate that it is the 22nd document in the 7142nd file in the 100 classification. As you inspect the documents, make a list of these file numbers and which office they represent. In this way you will be able to determine which office created and which office received the document you have in your hand. Often there is a block stamp affixed with the name of the office from whose files this copy was retrieved. the “To/From” heading on a document may also give you corresponding file numbers and will help you puzzle out the origin of the document.

When you have finally identified each document’s file and serial number and separated the documents into their proper office batches, make a list of all the serial numbers in each batch to see if there any any missing numbers. If there are missing serial numbers and some documents have been withheld, try to determine if the missing numbers might reasonably correspond to the withheld documents. If not, the release may be incomplete and an administrative appeal should be made.

Step 2 : Read all the document released to you. Keep a list of all document referred to the text–letters, memos, teletypes, reports, etc. Each of these “referred to” documents should turn up in the packet released to you. If any are not in the packet, it is possible they may be among those document withheld; a direct inquiry should be made. In an administrative appeal, ask that each of these “referred to” documents be produced or that the agency state plainly that they are among those withheld. Of course, the totals of unproduced vs. withheld must be within reasons; that is, if the total number of unproduced documents you find referred to the text of the documents produced exceeds the total number of documents withheld, the agency cannot claim that all the referred to documents are accounted for by the withheld category. You will soon get the hand of making logical conclusions from discrepancies in the totals and missing document numbers.

Another thing to look for when reading the released documents if the names of persons or agencies to whom the document has been disseminated. the lower left-hand corner is a common location for the typed list of agencies or offices to whom the document has been directed. In addition, there may be additional distribution recorded by hand, there or elsewhere on the cover page. There are published glossaries for some agencies that will help in deciphering these notations when they are not clear. Contact FOIA, Inc., if you need assistance in deciphering the text.

Finally, any other file numbers that appear on the document should be noted, particularly in the subject of the file is of interest and is one you have not requested. You may want to make an additional request for some of these files.


Under the FOIA, a dissatisfied requester has the right of administrative appeal. the name and address of the proper appeal office will be given to you by each agency in its final response letter.

This page contains a sample appeal letter with suggesting for adapting it to various circumstances. However, you need not make such an elaborate appeal; in fact, you need not offer any reasons at all but rather simply write a letter to the appeals unit stating that “this letter constitutes an appeal of the agency’s decision.” Of course, if you have identified some real discrepancies, you will want to set them for fully, but even if you have not found any, you may simply ask that the release be reviewed.

If you are still dissatisfied after the administrative appeal process, the FOIA gives you the right to bring a lawsuit in federal district court on an expedited basis.




This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

I request a complete and thorough search of all filing systems and locations for all records maintained by your agency pertaining to and/or captioned ______________________________________________________ [describe records desired and/or insert full and ______________________________________________________ formal name] ______________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________ including, without limitation, files and documents captioned, or whose captions include: ______________________________________________________ [insert changes in name, commonly used names,
______________________________________________________ acronyms, sub-groups and the like] ______________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________

I also request all “see references” to these names, a search of the ELSUR Index or any similar technique for locating records of electronic surveillance.

This request is also a request for any corresponding files in INS Headquarters or regional offices.

Please place any “missing” files pertaining to this request on “special locate” and advise that you have done this.

If documents are denied in part or whole, please specify which exemption(s) is(are) claimed for each passage or whole document denied. Please provide a complete itemized inventory and detailed factual justification of total or partial denial of documents. Specify the number of pates in each document and the total number of pages pertaining to this request. For classified material denied, please include the following information: the classification rating (confidential, secret, or top secret); identify the classifier; date or event for automatic declassification, classification review or downgrading; if applicable, identify the official authorizing extension of automatic declassification or review; and, if applicable, give the reason for extended classification.

I request that excised material be “blacked out” rather than “whited out” or cut out. I expect, as provided by the Freedom of Information Act, that the remaining non-exempt portions of documents will be released.

Please send a memo (copy to me) to the appropriate units in your office or agency to assure that no records related to this request are destroyed. Please advise of any destruction of records and include the date of and authority for such destruction.

As I expect to appeal any denials, please specify the office and address to which an appeal should be directed.

I believe my request qualifies for a waiver of fees since the release of the requested information would primarily benefit the general public and be “in the public interest.”

I can be reached at the phone listed below. Please call rather than write if there are any questions or if you need additional information from me.

I expect a response to this request within ten (10) working days, as provided for in the Freedom of Information Act.


name: __________________________________________
address: _________________________________________
telephone: (___)___________________________________
signature: ________________________________________



To: FOIA/PA Appeals Office
RE: Request number [Add this if the agency has given your request a number]

This is an appeal pursuant to subsection (a)(6) of the Freedom of Information Act as amended (5U.S.C. 552).

On [date], I received a letter from [name of official] of your agency denying my request for [describe briefly the information you are after]. This reply indicated that an appeal letter could be sent to you. I am enclosing a copy of my exchange of correspondence with your agency so that you can see exactly what files I have requested and the insubstantial grounds on which my
request has been denied.

[Optional paragraph, to be used if the agency has withheld all or nearly all the material which has been requested]:

You will note that your agency has withheld the entire (or nearly the entire) document (or file, or report, or whatever) that I requested. Since the FOIA provides that “any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt,” I believe that your agency has not complied with the FOIA. I believe that there must be (additional) segregable portions which do not fall within FOIA exemptions and which must be released.

[Optional paragraph, to be used in the agency has used the (b)(1) exemption for national security, to withhold information] Your agency has used the (b)(1) exemption to withhold information [I question whether files relating to events that took place over twenty years ago could realistically harm the national security.] [Because I am familiar with my own activities during the period in question, and know that none of these activities in any way posed a significant threat to the national security, I question the designation of my files or portions of my file as classified and exempt from disclosure because of national security considerations.]

[Sample optional argument to be used if the exemption which is claimed does not seem to make sense; you should cite as many specific instances as you care to of items withheld from the documents that you have received. We provide two examples which you might want to adapt to your own case.]

“On the memo dated _____________ the second paragraph withheld under the (b)(1) exemption appears to be describing a conversation at an open meeting. If this is the case, it is impossible that the substance of this conversation could be properly classified.”

Or, “The memo dated _____ refers to a meeting which I attended, but a substantial portion is deleted because of the (b)(6) and (b)(7)(c) exemptions for unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. Since I already know who attended this meeting, no privacy interest is served by the
withholding.” I trust that upon examination of my request, you will conclude that the records I requested are not properly covered by exemption(s) [here repeat the exemptions which the agency’s denial letter claimed applied to your request] of the amended FOIA, and that you will overrule the decision to withhold the information.

[Use if an itemized inventory is not supplied originally] If you choose instead to continue to withhold some or all of the material which was denied in my initial request to your agency, I ask that you give me an index of such material, together with the justification for the denial of each item which is still withheld.

As provided in the Act, I will expect to receive a reply to this administrative appeal letter within twenty working days. If you deny this appeal and do not adequately explain why the material withheld is properly exempt, I intend to initial a lawsuit to compel its disclosure. [You can say that you intend to sue, if that is your present inclination; you may still decide ultimately not to file suit.]

Sincerely yours,



Central Intelligence Agency Information and Privacy Coordinator, Central Intelligence Agency Washington, D.C. 20505 202-351-5659

Civil Service Commission Appropriate Bureau (Bureau of Personnel Investigation, Bureau of Personnel Information Systems, etc.) Civil Service Commission 1900 E Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20415 202-632-4431

Commission on Civil Rights General Counsel, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1121 Vermont Ave., N.W. Room 600 Washington, D.C. 20415 202-254-6610

Consumer Product Safety Commission Office of the Secretary Consumer Product Safety Commission 1111 18th St., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20207 202-624-7700

Department of Defense/Dept. of Air Force Freedom of Information Manager Headquarters, USAF/DADF Washington, D.C. 20330-5025 202-697-3467