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Freedom of Information Act

What is FOIA?

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.

What is the Presumption of Openness and Who Issues Guidance to Agencies on the FOIA?

The FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. The Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice is responsible for issuing government-wide guidance on the FOIA as part of its responsibilities to encourage all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA.

How do I make a FOIA Request?

Before making a request, first look to see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available.  You can find a lot of useful information on a range of topics on each agency’s website.  You can also search for information agencies have already posted online here on FOIA.gov.

If the information you want is not publicly available, you can submit a FOIA request to the agency’s FOIA Office.  The request simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek.  Most federal agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, e-mail or fax.  See the list of federal agencies for details about how to make a request to each agency and any specific requirements for seeking certain records.

Is there a special form I have to use to make a FOIA request?

There is no specific form that must be used to make a request.

What can I ask for under the FOIA?

A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. You can also specify the format in which you wish to receive the records (for example, printed or electronic form). The FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests.

How long will it take before I get a response?

Agencies typically process requests in the order of receipt.  The time it takes to respond to a request will vary depending on the complexity of the request and any backlog of requests already pending at the agency.  A simple request can be processed faster by the agency than one that is complex.  Simple requests are typically more targeted and seek fewer pages of records.  Complex requests typically seek a high volume of material or require additional steps to process such as the need to search for records in multiple locations.  The agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center is available to assist you with any questions about the status of your request or any steps you can take to receive a quicker response.

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