If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress? ~Author Unknown
The following file is for individuals or organizations who wish to make an
FOIA application to a federal agency.
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
This kit contains all the materials needed to make FOIA requests for
records on an individual, an organization or on a particular subject matter
[IMPORTANT: This is the 1988 edition and there have been a number of changes
since then. We're including this material because it gives some good
basics, but be sure that you comply with current law.]
HOW TO MAKE A COMPLETE REQUEST
Step 1: Select and make copies of the sample letter. Fill in the blanks
in the body of the letter. Read the directions printed to the right margin
of the letter in conjunction with the following instructions:
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 space. Unlike other requests, the
signatures of an individual requesting her/his own file must be notarized.
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. There is no need to notarize
signature for organizational requests.
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, photocopied and mailed
as is or retyped on your own stationary. Be sure to keep a copy of each
Step 3: Addressing the letters: Consult list of agency addresses on page
7 and 8 of this kit.
FBI: A complete request requires a minimum of two letters. Send one
letter to FBI Headquarters and separate letters 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
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 mark clearly on the envelope:
Attention FOIA Request
In 1987 a new fee structure went into effect. Each agency has new fee
regulations for search and review time and for duplication of released
Commercial requesters must pay for search and review time and for
News Media representatives and Educational and Scientific Institutions
whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research pay for duplication only.
Public Interest groups who can qualify as press, educational, or scientific
institutions will be charged duplication costs only.
All other non-commercial requesters are entitled to up to 100 pages of free
copying and up to 2 hours of free search time. Requesters will have to pay
fees for work that extends beyond those limits unless they qualify for a
fee waiver or reduction (see below).
No fee may be charged if the cost of collection exceeds the fee. Advanced
payment may not be demanded unless a requester has previously failed to pay
on time or the fee exceeds $250.
You will notice that the sample letter includes a request for a fee waiver
with instructions for the agency to refer to an attached sheet. Fees for
all non-commercial requesters, beyond the 2 hours/100 page/automatic waiver
described above, may be waived or reduced if the disclosure of the
"in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to
public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and
is not primarily in the commericial interest of the requester."
You should always request a waiver or fees if you believe the information
you are seeking will benefit the public. Read the fee waiver worksheet for
non-commercial users included in this kit on page 5 for help in composing a
request for a fee waiver. If your request for a waiver is denied, you
should appeal that denial, citing the ways in which your request meets the
standards set in the attached fact sheet.
HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU GET EVERYTHING YOU ARE ENTITLED TO. . .
AND WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON'T
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 occurs very infrequently. If the response you get indicates that the
agency has released all records pertinent to your request, with no
exclusions or withholdings, you will receive the requested documents with
an agency cover letter, or if bulky, the documents may be mailed under
Next step: Check documents for completeness (see instructions below) and
make an administrative appeal if you find a discrepancy between your own
analysis and that of the agency (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 excized some passages from the
documents released. The released documents may be enclosed or, if bulky,
mailed under separate cover.
Next step: Check documents for completeness (see instructions below) and
make an administrative appeal of denials or incompleteness (see
3. Request denied in full: This response and the denied part response
indicate that the agency is asserting that material in its files pertaining
to your request falls under one of the nine FOIA exemptions. These are
categories of information that the agency may, at its discretion, refuse to
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 appealed.
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 correspondence, to or from that agency. If you determine that there are
reasonable grounds, file an administrative appeal (see instructions below).
HOW TO CHECK DOCUMENTS FOR COMPLETENESS
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 righthand 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 are any missing
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 they don't, the release may be incomplete and an
administrative appeal should be made.
Step 2: Read all the documents released to you. Keep a list of all
documents referred to in the text, including 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 that
they are among the documents withheld and 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. List each "referred to" document separately. The totals of
unproduced vs. witheld must be within reason; that is, if the total number
of unproduced documents you find referred to in 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 hang of making logical
conclusions from discrepancies in totals and missing document numbers.
Another thing to look for when reading the released documents is 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 if 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.
HOW TO MAKE AN ADMINISTRATIVE APPEAL
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 kit contains a sample appeal letter with suggestions 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 should set them forth fully (for example see Step 2
under "How to Check Documents for Completeness"), 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.
MONITORING THE PROGRESS OF YOUR REQUEST
You should 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 since requests are being handled on a first come first served
basis. The best strategy is to be "reasonably" patient, but there is no
reason to sit complacently and wait for an interminable period of time.
A good strategy is to telephone the FOIA office in each agency after about
a month if you have received nothing of substance. Ask for a progress
report. Note the name of the person you speak to and what they say.
Continue to call every 4 to 6 weeks.
Good record keeping helps avoid time-consuming and frustrating confusion.
A looseleaf notebook with a section devoted to each request simplifies this
task. At the beginning of the request process, sometimes it is difficult
to foresee what course of action you will want to take in the future. Keep
copies of all correspondence to and from each agency. They can be inserted
between the notes on phone calls so that all relevant material will be at
hand for future use, including phone consultations, correspondence,
newspaper articles, preparation for media appearances, congressional
testimony or litigation.
[NOTE: All the text in braces  is for your information. Do NOT include
[NOTE: Start by photocopying several copies of this letter or retype if
SAMPLE REQUEST LETTER FOR ALL AGENCIES
To: FOIA/PA Unit
[Check box for appropriate agency]
__ FBI Headquarters
__ FBI Field Office
__ Other Agency
This is a noncommerical request under the Freedom of Information and
Privacy Acts. I have attached a sheet setting out my application for a fee
waiver of any fees in excess of those which are provided free because of my
My category for fee and fee waiver purposes is:(check one)
__ request for personal file;
no search fee and 100 free pages.
__ journalist, academic or scientist;
no search fee and 100 free pages.
__ other non-commerical requester (group or person);
2 hours free search and 100 free pages.
I request a complete and thorough search of all filing systems and
locations for all records maintained by your agency pertaining to and/or
including, without limitation, files and documents captioned, or whose
[describe records desired and/or insert full and formal name]
This request specifically includes where appropriate "main" files and "see
references," including but not limited to numbered and lettered sub files
and control files. I also request a search of the Electronic Surveillance
(ELSUR) Index, or any similar technique for locating records of electronic
surveillance and the COINTELPRO Index. I request that all records be
produced with the administrative pages. I wish to be sent copies of "see
reference" cards, abstracts, search slips, including search slips used to
process this request, file covers, multiple copies of the same documents if
they appear in a file, tapes of any electronic surveillance, photographs,
and logs of physical surveillance (FISUR). Please place missing documents
on "special locate."
I wish to make it clear that I want all records in your office
"identifiable with my request," even though reports on those records have
been sent to Headquarters and even though there may be duplication between
the two sets of files. I do not want just "interim" documents. I want all
documents as they appear in the "main" files and "see references" of all
units of your agency.
If documents are denied in whole or in part, please specify which
exemption(s) is(are) claimed for each passage or whole document denied.
Give the number of pages in each document and the total number of pages
pertaining to this request and the dates of documents withheld.
I request that excized material be "blacked out" rather than "whited out"
or cut out and that the remaining non-exempt portions of documents be
released as provided under the Freedom of Information Act.
Please send a memo (with a copy or copies to me) to the appropriate unit(s)
in your office 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 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.
[Have signature notorized ONLY if requesting your own files]
Name (print or type):_______________________________
Social Security number (optional): _______________________
(for personal files)
Date of Birth:____________________
Place of birth:___________________
(for organization files)
Date of founding:_____________________________________
Place of founding:____________________________________
Address of organization:______________________________
[MARK CLEARLY ON ENVELOPE: FOI/PA REQUEST]
Fee Waiver Worksheet for Non-Commercial Requesters
All non-commercial requesters are entitled to apply for a fee waiver for
charges in excess of those which are provided free because of requester's
category. Following amendments to the FOIA in October 1986, the Justice
Department issued a memo outlining six criteria to be used by agencies in
determining whether or not to grant fee waivers. Many Congresspeople
dispute the memo's legality, pointing out its invitation to subjective
judgements, and its proclivity to intimidate requesters. Nevertheless,
until the six criteria are eliminated, either by Congress or court
decisions, requesters will have to address them in order to qualify for a
To apply for a fee waiver, attach a separate sheet of paper to your request
letter explaining in narrative form how your request satisfies each of the
following six criteria.
(1) Explain how the records you are requesting are likely to shed light on
the operations or activities of the government.
(2) Describe how the records you are requesting will contribute to the
understanding of government operations or activities. If the information
being requested is not already in the public domain bring this fact to the
(3)a. Explain to the agency how the public will ultimately benefit from
the information you are requesting. Legislative history and recent case
law indicate that the "public" is not limited to U.S. public nor must it be
the "public at-large." For example, Representatives English and Kindness
jointly stated during recent Congressional debate, "Public understanding is
enhanced when information is disclosed to the subset of the public most
interested, concerned or affected by a particular action or matter."
Furthermore, District Court Judge Harold Greene in a 1987 opinion involving
a request by a Canadian newspaper said, "There is no requirement in the
[FOIA] statute that news media seeking fee waivers [must] serve the
American public exclusively, or even tangentially . . . an FBI official
does not have the authority to amend the law of the United States by
restricting it beyond its plain terms."*
In other words, the public you seek to educate does not have to reside in
the United States, nor is the size of that public relevant to your
entitlement to a fee waiver.
(3)b. Explain to the agency your qualifications (educational, work
experience, etc.) for understanding the requested information and outline
your ability and intention to disseminate the information once it has been
You might want to cite any of the following activities in order to
demonstrate your ability and intention to disseminate information to the
public: writing newspaper or scholarly articles, writing books, granting
interviews, public speaking engagements, preparing Congressional testimony,
producing pamphlets, videos, film, radio programs, etc.
(4) The Justice Department memo stipulates that the contribution to public
understanding must be "significant." What constitutes a "significant"
contribution is clearly susceptible to subjective interpretation. However,
we suggest that you make reference to current news stories, efforts to
correct the historical record or expose government or corporate fraud or
threats to public health and safety. Broadly speaking, any information
that would enable the public to hold the government accountable for any of
its operations or activities can be persuasively argued to be a
"significant" contribution to public understanding.
(5) and (6) Explain to the agency (if it is the case) that any commercial
interest that will be furthered by the requested records is not the primary
interest when compared to the public interest that will be served. For
example, if the information is requested pursuant to the publication of a
book, you should explain (if it is the case) that this book is not destined
to become a bestseller because of topic, publisher, or anticipated
News media representatives, scholars or scientists, should make requests
for documents and fee waivers on the appropriate institutional letterhead.
Similarly, requests for organizational files should be made on the
You have a right to file an administrative appeal if you receive an adverse
decision regarding either your fee category or fee waiver request. The
letter containing the adverse decision will tell you to whom you should
direct the appeal.
* Joint statement by Reps. English and Kindness, Congressional Record, H-
9464, October 8, 1986; Judge Greene's opinion in Southam News v. INS.
(Civ. No. 85-2721, D.D.C., November 9, 1987).
SAMPLE ADMINISTRATIVE APPEAL LETTER
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 (5 U.S.C. 552).
On [date] I received a letter from [name of official] of your agency
denying my request for [describe briefly the information your 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.
[Insert following paragraph 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 entire)
document 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 the FOIA
exemptions and which must be released.
[Insert following paragraph if the agency has used the (b)(1) exemption for
national security purposes 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
[Sample optional arguments 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 have requested are not properly covered by exemption(s)____
[insert the exemption(s) 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.
[Insert following paragraph if an itemized inventory was not supplied by
If you choose 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 Freedom of Information Act, I will expect to receive a
reply to this adminstrative appeal letter within twenty (20) working days.
If you deny this appeal and do not adequately explain why the material
withheld is properly exempt, I intend to initiate a lawsuit to compel its
disclosure. [You can say that you intend to sue if that is your present
inclination even though you may ultimately decide not to file suit.]
[MARK CLEARLY ON ENVELOPE: ATTENTION: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION APPEALS]
FOIA/PA ADDRESSES FOR SELECTED FEDERAL AGENCIES
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
Washington, D.C. 20544
Bureau of Prisons
320 1st St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20534
Central Intelligence Agency
Information and Privacy Coordinator
Washington, D.C. 20505
Civil Service Commission Appropriate Bureau:
___ Bureau of Personnel Investigation,
___ Bureau of Personnel
___ Information Systems
Civil Service Commission
1900 E Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20415
Commission on Civil Rights
General Counsel, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
1121 Vermont Ave., N.W., Rm. 600
Washington, D.C. 20405
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