7 Anatomy of FOIA request language

Each request should have the following components:

  1. Type of document(s)
  2. Subject of your request (incident, person, event, meeting, etc.)
  3. Location, country or state
  4. Date of incident, meeting, or event (if applicable)
  5. Background information and mention of supporting documents
  6. Any specific information (if applicable)
  7. Date range

See detailed explanations and examples:

Type of Documents

You can say “all documents” or if you want to be more specific, say “all documents including but not limited to….” and list the types of documents that might contain the information you want. Think of what kind of documents an agency might have, like “intelligence reports” on a situation or “biographic reports” on a foreign official (DIA or CIA). Or if you are requesting about a meeting, there is likely documents preparing for the meeting, meeting minutes, and then post-meeting summaries or reports, so ask for “meeting briefing reports, memoranda, minutes, reports, summaries, memoranda of conversations, and transcripts.”

Subject of your request

You want to be as concise and non-confusing as possible. Get into the brain of the FOIA officer at the agency looking at your request language. If you were in their shoes, what are some search terms you would need? Where would you start? Are you being clear? Are all of the important points included if someone has never heard of what you are talking about?

Location, country or state

Which locations that the documents are about, if applicable. Especially if it is an incident, event, or operation. If it is about a person, include the person’s nationality. If it is an incident, be sure to include the

Date

If it is an incident, be sure to include the date(s) when the incident took place, if known. However, this is different than the “date range”, see below for more information about the date range.

Background

Again, get in the brain of the person who will be researching your request. What important information will make their search easier and more fruitful? Sometimes this includes suggesting search terms. For example: “When searching for Guatemalan Special Forces, please also include “kaibles, kaibiles rangers, kaibiles ranger unit, kaibil”, etc. in your search.” Also be sure to give possible Spanish-language search terms or both English and Spanish, for example: “Operación Limpieza”, also known as “Operation Cleanup.” Note that the military and civilians may have different names for operations and massacres, include as much information as possible.

Request for specific information

If you have a request about a general trend or theme, and you want all information, but also about specific incidents or people related to the theme, you can use the phrase “including but not limited to”. This may also help the person researching your request to know what type of information you are looking for. This is an optional part of the request. Also note that the agency may search for ONLY what you mention. In some cases, it might be good to submit a separate specific request, and a more general request.

Date Range

Some agencies (State Dept. and Dept. of Defense) require a date range for when the documents you seek were created. If you do not include a date range for these agencies, they will most likely contact you for clarification. If a date range is not included, agencies may make the argument that your request is over-burdensome, requiring you to clarify it. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is especially known for making this argument. It’s good practice to always have a date range.

 

Building Rapport

Generally it is a good idea to build rapport with the FOIA officers working on your request. While it may feel adversarial at times, the process can be easier and more efficient if you help the FOIA officer understand what you are looking for, and find out how their internal organization systems work. If you are struggling with how to word the request, or are not sure which agency to ask, you can call the FOIA hotline. Each agency is supposed to have a customer service line for inquiries about requester’s cases.  You can find the agency contact information, including hotline telephone numbers at FOIA.gov.

Some agencies will respond to certain wording and request language differently. Intelligence agencies, and the CIA in particular, can be prickly when it comes to wording in your request. For example, in most cases, any request made about a person, place, or thing, the CIA will respond with what is known as a Glomar response, named after the GLOMAR explorer (this is an important FOIA history story!). The Glomar response essentially says that the CIA “cannot confirm nor deny the existence of the documents”. This is the most difficult response to appeal. One way to avoid this is to ask about specific incidents. So, instead of asking for information about Jane Doe, ask for information about the assassination or disappearance about Jane Doe, and all subsequent investigations into the assassination or disappearance. If asking about a paramilitary group, ask about the violence perpetrated by the paramilitary group in a certain time period.  Also, do not use the phrase “related to” in CIA requests. The CIA won a lawsuit that says all documents could in some way be related to any topic. They will respond that the request is over-burdensome if you use that phrase.

If you have repeated problems, it would not hurt to call the FOIA officer managing your case and get help over the phone on how to clarify your request. This can make everyone’s job easier because they don’t have to send multiple responses asking you to clarify, or narrow your request. It is also a good idea to be willing to compromise during the conversation. For example, you could agree to narrow the date range of your request. You might agree to ask first for a sample of a certain type of report you are looking for, then if you decide after reviewing the sample you need a larger set, you could later file a second request asking for a batch of them. If you have a series of similar requests open, you could agree to combine them into one request, and close the other outstanding ones. In some cases, after rapport has been build, a FOIA officer might preemptively call you to give you advice about wording, or where to request to get better results. Extra effort to build rapport pays off in the long run.

 

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How to FOIA by Emily Willard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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