Alibi V.13 No.27 • July 1-7, 2004 


Filing a FOIA Request

Where To Write

The first thing you need to do is decide which federal agency has the information you are seeking, You should go to the library and check the descriptions of the various agencies in publications like the United States Government Organization Manual (US Government Printing Office), or call the local office of your representative in Congress. Once you have narrowed down the possibilities, you might want to call the FOIA or the public affairs office of those agencies for more specific information.

If you think you know which agency has the records you are interested in, get the specific mailing address for its FOIA office. Just go to the agency's website or look up the agency's FOIA regulation in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) which you can find at the public library and on the Internet.

What You Want

Your request must "reasonably describe" the records you are seeking. This means the description must be specific enough that a government employee familiar with the agency's files will be able to locate the records within a reasonable amount of time and without much effort.

You don't have to explain why you want the information you are seeking—but this explanation might be necessary if you want the agency to waive its fees or comply more fully with your request.

Be Precise

The more precise and accurate your request, the more likely you are to get a prompt and complete response and the lower the search fees will be. An agency will contact you if it needs more clarification.

Planning Your Strategy

Try to limit your request to what you really want. If you simply ask for "all files relating to" a particular subject (including yourself), you may give the agency an excuse to delay its response, and you risk needlessly running up search and copying costs.

If you know that your request involves a great volume of records, try to state both what your request includes and what it does not include.

Be as specific as possible. Cite relevant newspaper clips, articles, congressional reports, etc. If the records have already been released, let the agency know the date, release number and name of the original requester.

Let the agency know if you'd like to receive information in a particular order. Materials could be reviewed and released to you in chronological or geographical order—or you may simply not want to wait for all the records to be reviewed before any are released.

Keep Records Of Your Verbal And Written Correspondence

Be sure to keep a copy of all correspondence to and from the agency. You'll need it if you write an appeal or go to court later.

Take notes during all phone conversations—their date, what was said, who you spoke to, etc. Follow phone conversations up with a letter addressed to the official you spoke with. Confirming phone conversations in writing will help ensure there are no misunderstandings, and it is also useful if your request needs to be forwarded to another office or agency. Written notes can also clear up any misunderstandings that might arise.

In general, it can be useful to establish a regular contact in the agency's FOIA office who you can ask for by name, if this is possible.

For the complete guide and agency addresses, go to