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FOIA Tip 16: Which Agency or Department Should I Send my FOIA Request To?

April 20, 2010

Organizational chart of the Department of Defense; just one of more than 90 federal departments and agencies.

The first step to deciding where to send your FOIA request is conducting preliminary research to identify which agencies or agency components are likely to have materials about your research topic. A number of different tools are available to learn about agency operations and help you find out which agencies may have been involved in the topic or issue you are researching. For example:

  • Secondary sources like books and articles can provide useful information about agencies or even about documents relevant to your subject.
  • Investigate the agency’s Web site, and look for mission statements, organizational charts, or other background material about the agency’s work.
  • Call the agency FOIA office or public affairs office if you are still not sure whether you have selected the correct agency.
  • The agency’s FOIA site or FOIA office may be able to help you determine whether you need to send your request to the headquarters or to a field office or component.

Depending on your research topic or subject of interest, several agencies or components may have relevant documents. If this is the case, you should send your request to each of these agencies or components to ensure that you get all relevant information rather than just the portion held by one agency. For example, if you are searching for information about US policy on drug trafficking in Colombia, you may want to send your request to the Department of State as well as to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Defense, US Southern Command, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Some agencies have “centralized” FOIA programs. This means that one central office is responsible for processing all FOIA requests for the entire agency. Other agencies have “decentralized” FOIA programs, where multiple components, offices, or bureaus within the agency have independent FOIA staff responsible for processing the component’s requests.

The Department of Defense is an example of an agency with a decentralized FOIA program. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has its own FOIA office that processes general Defense Department FOIA requests. But each military branch (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) and major command has its own FOIA office. Within these components, there are even some subcomponents with independent FOIA offices.

At a decentralized agency, you should send your request directly to the appropriate component or office if possible. You can also send the request to the central processing office, which generally will forward it to the appropriate office, but this may delay processing.

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