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FOIA Tip No. 4—Writing a Good FOIA Request Part I

December 3, 2009

So you want to send a FOIA request. . . . What should you ask for? The Freedom of Information Act says you can ask for any records that a federal agency has (not just paper documents, but electronic files, photos, videos, etc.). But to get the best results—getting the documents you want, and not too many that you don’t, in a reasonable amount of time—you have to think strategically about how to write your request. Make sure it’s clear because the agency will read it very literally. If it’s too broad, you may have to pay for copies of hundreds of documents you don’t want; but if it’s too narrow, the agency might not find what you’re looking for.

We at the Archive have written a lot of FOIA requests over the years, so here are a few ideas.  You can ask for a specific document. It’s great if you know the title of the document, but if not, identify it for the agency as best you can. Be clear and specific, including dates, names, key events, or other details about the record(s). You can look around the agency’s web site, in press accounts, or in other released documents to find out more. Of course, you can also ask for documents by a date range, event, or general subject. The important thing is that you provide as much information as possible to help the agency search for the documents. But keep your request clear, concise, and to the point so as not to confuse agency staff about what you’re looking for.

Here are a few sample FOIA request subjects to get you started:

  • A request for a record by its title: “A December 2002 document titled, ‘2001 Intelligence Report to Congress on the Chemical Weapons Convention.’ This document was cited in the March 31, 2005, report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (Silberman-Robb Report), p. 228.”
  • A request for a record based on a newspaper article: “The spring 2003 memorandum from Maj. Gen. Jack L. Rives, Deputy Judge Advocate General (JAG), Department of the Air Force, on interrogation techniques that is discussed in the attached June 24, 2004, article from The Washington Post by R. Jeffrey Smith.”
  • A general subject request: “All documents related in whole or in part to the failure of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of President to preserve electronic documents, including e-mails.”
  • A request for records related to a particular event: “All documents related in whole or in part to the April 12, 1980, coup in Liberia by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.”
  • A request for documents for a specific period: “All cable traffic generated from August 1to November 30, 1975, relating in whole or in part to the outbreak of civil war in East Timor and Indonesian military and security operations in and around East Timor.”
  • A request for a regularly issued report for a specific time period: “Copies of the National Intelligence Daily (NID) for the following dates: April 12, 1980; April 14, 1980; and April 15, 1980.”

It takes practice, but you too can write a great FOIA request! If you’re still unsure, start with our sample FOIA request letter. For more advice on writing a FOIA request, check out Chapter 3 of our guide, Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone.

  1. January 25, 2011 3:17 pm

    I love this website, the information is great and I have bookmarked it in my favorites. This is a well organized and informative website. Great Job!

  2. January 19, 2014 6:12 pm

    Hey, I’ve got a question regarding your “General subject request” example. I’ve tried sending such requests to several agencies, and it seems that some of them (FBI) will accept requests like this, while others (DSS) will deny them, citing Freeman v. United States Department of Justice (D.D.C. Oct. 16. 1991), which states that the government doesn’t have to go on “fishing expeditions” and Dale v. IRS, which says that these “any and all records that relate in any way to [subject]” type requests are too vague, and fail to “reasonably describe records requested” …

    Can you give some tips on general records requests, and how Dale v. IRS and Freeman v. DOJ tie into this?


    • Nate Jones permalink
      January 23, 2014 3:21 pm

      I now think that the more specific a requester can make a request, the better. You’re right that some agencies accept broader requests that others. But my experience has show that more targeted requests usually get better dox. Even submitting multiple specific requests is better than one broad request. My last suggestion: think like a bureaucrat. If a request is easy for a government official to find (targeted, specific, etc) it is more likely they act on it, rather than shove it in a desk drawer forever.


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