When someone needs government information that is not readily available, one option is for them to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1966,  the Freedom of Information Act allows for the whole or partial release of formerly unavailable documents held by the federal government. There are many reasons for submitting a FOIA request, like conducting research, writing a book, advancing a theory, developing a project, or even just curiosity. Regardless of the reason, anyone can submit a request. Once a request has been submitted, the government is required provide the information unless it falls into the exemptions designed to ensure protection, privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

who can submit a foia request?

As mentioned, anyone may submit a request to the U.S. government regardless of nationality. A non U.S. citizen has the right to request and receive the information as much as a U.S. citizen does. It is up to the federal agency to identify and protect any information that meet the exemption criteria. For national security concerns, this is usually accomplished by the federal agency using a security classification: Confidential, Secret, Top Secret), For Official Use Only, or other designations to protect information falling under one or more exemptions.

The first step to take when requesting information is to determine if the information is already available. This can be easily accomplished by visiting the FOIA FAQ page and conducting a search for available information. If the information requested is already available, it can be used by the potential requester. If the information is not there or incomplete, the requester should begin the request process.

The next step should be to determine which federal agency owns the information being sought. Even if the requester cannot determine which agency owns the information, they may still be able to provide enough information for someone to refer the request to the appropriate agency.

How Can Someone Submit a FOIA Request?

Next, submit the FOIA request in writing and with a description of the information desired. The requester can submit the request via a web form, email, or fax and the submission information is available at the FOIA website. There are even “how to” and descriptive FOIA request videos that inform of the request process. The requestor should specify how they would prefer to receive the information, such as printed or electronic. If available, the agency will provide the information in the format that it already exists. The agency will not conduct new or additional research, or provide a product that does not already exist.

Once the request is received and processed the agency should send an acknowledgement of receipt and a tracking number. They may contact the requester to seek additional information or if they have enough information, go ahead and provide requested information. Any information that falls under any exemption will not be provided. Those performing the function of reviewing information may mark out or remove protected information from the final product.

How Long Does it Take to Get the Requested Information?

The entire process takes as long as it takes. Each agency is responsible for reviewing the request for the information under its cognizance and each agency has its own internal process. The requester can speed the process by providing the request with as much detail as possible and requesting from the correct agency. If the receiving agency has to continually seek clarification from the requester or refer the work to another agency, the process could take longer. There are ways to expedite requests, and the requester will be provided the opportunity to rationalize any requirement for faster response.

There may be occasions where the government already has information that someone needs to resolve a problem or issue. If someone is aware of the information there is a process in place to make that information available. As long as the information is not exempted for release, it may be provided to the requester. The process takes time and the product should be provided in the format that it already exists. Those requiring the information should do the research necessary to identify the correct federal agency to submit it to and a specific description of what is required for the agency to better determine the information needed.

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Jeffrey W. Bennett is a security consultant with SFPC, SAPPC, ISOC, ISP certifications. He maintains a security blog and newsletter and is the author of many security books including DoD Security Clearance and Contracts Guidebook-What Cleared Contractors Need to Know About Their Need to Know, The Insider’s Guide to Security Clearances, and books on security certification. Visit his website www.redbikepublishing.com for more information.