FOIA Handbook

Statue of liberty.

Have you found yourself curious about the FOIA Handbook? Freelance writers and journalists are often concerned with how to make a Freedom of Information Act request for materials. However, as with all issues concerning the government, making that request can be a bureaucratic nightmare if you don't know what you are doing. The FOIA Handbook is designed to assist individuals looking to exercise one of their rights as citizens of the United States, which is to request and receive public information and records from federal government agencies as is laid out in the Freedom of Information Act. This article will help you make this process less intimidating.

Understanding the FOIA Handbook

The Freedom of Information Act Handbook is published by the Department of Defense. A PDF of the file can be found at the DOD's website if you are interested in reading the entire publication. The highlights and most important aspects will be covered below.

  1. The FOIA is a federal law that ensures that individuals have the right to request records from the government.
  2. Any U.S. citizen, organization, university, business, state or local government, or foreign national may make a FOIA request. The Department of Defense reserves the right to refuse an request that deals with the intelligence community if it is made by a foreign government or an international government organization.
  3. The FOIA does not apply to the government at large. For example, the president, parts of the executive office, Congress, and the courts are not a part of the act's scope. Parts of the executive branch departments, federal regulatory agencies, and federal corporations do fall under the FOIA's scope.
  4. The types of records that are available to be requested include papers, maps, books, photographs, and any other documentary material. You may request and receive these records, but the government is not obliged to answer any questions about them. You will be presented the material, and will then need to figure out what it means on your own.
  5. Some fees may be required for certain information, although waivers are given if the information is defined as being in the public interest. Except for commercial requests, waivers are always considered.

Filing a Request

Filing a request requires a special process that must be accurately followed if you are to receive your materials in a timely manner. Remember, this is a large bureaucracy - one of the largest on earth - so you need to be sure you follow protocol exactly or your request will likely be rejected.

  1. The first thing you need to do is to figure out which Department of Defense component would be most likely to handle your request. You can visit this link to find a list of components, or you can call the Office of Freedom of Information Act at (703) 696-4689 for assistance.
  2. Label your request Freedom of Information Act Request, and state your willingness to pay any fees that might be applicable.
  3. Describe the records you seek in as much detail as possible so they can be located. Including the type of document is essential, and any other information you have like the author or the date of creation will only help ensure your request is fulfilled.

Reasons for Denial

There are many reasons why a request might be denied, and some are listed below. Know, however, that any denial can be appealed.

  1. A search failed to find your requested records.
  2. You requested the document from the wrong Department of Defense component.
  3. You failed to follow procedure adequately.
  4. The record is not available per the rules of the Freedom of Information Act.

Be Persistent

As anyone who has ever dealt with the IRS knows, dealing with governmental agencies takes persistence. If at first you don't succeed, go back and check all your steps and try again. Sometimes the smallest detail can be the difference between a successful request and getting turned down.

FOIA Handbook