from the Amnet Civil Liberties BBS, Chicago 1 312 436-3062 . FOIA FILES KIT . Instructions
from the Amnet Civil Liberties BBS, Chicago
1 312 436-3062
. FOIA FILES KIT
. USING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
. REVISED EDITION
Fund for Open Information and Accountability, Inc. 339 Lafayette Street, New
York, NY 10012 (212) 477-3188
The Freedom of Information Act entitles you to request any record
maintained by a federal Executive branch agency. The agency must release the
requested matieral unless it falls into one of nine exempt categores, 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 kit contains all the material needed to make FOIA requests for
records on an individual, an orgnaization or on a particular subject matter or
HOW TO MAKE A COMPLETE REQUEST
Step 1: Select the appropriate smaple 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 vaiations 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
Step 3: Addressing the letters: Consult list of agency addresses.
FBI: A complete request requires a minimum of two letters. Sen done
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. Consdier the location of residences, schools, work and other
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 appropraite 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 th epublic 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.
MONITORING THE PROGRESS OF YOUR REQUEST
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 converstaion
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
Good recordkeeping helps avoid time-consuming and frustrating confusion.
A looseleaf notebook with a section devoted to each request simplifies this
task. Intervening correspondence to and from the agency can be inserted
bewteen 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.
HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU GET EVERYTHING YOU ARE ENTITLED TO ...
AND WHAT TO DO IF YOU DO NOT
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. Requested 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 released for completeness (see instructions
below) and make an administrative appeal of denials or incompleteness (see
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 matieral in teh 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 FOR COMPLETENESS
Step 1: Before reading the documents, turn them over and number the back
of each page sequentilaly. The packet may contain documents from the agency's
headquarters as well as several field office files. Separate the documents
into their reqpective 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 eahc 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 teh missing numbers might reasonably correspond to the
withheld documents. If not, the realease 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
categoty. 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-hadn corncer 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 notaitons 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, particularaly 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
HOW TO MAKE AN ADMINISTRATIVE APPEAL
Under the FOIA, a dissatified 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 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
discrepanices, you will want to set them forth 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.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank