6 Writing requests

Target your Request

First and foremost, you want to figure out which U.S. government agency is most likely to have the information you seek. This might require some background research in the functioning of the agency, and what types of information they produce. Through trial and error, you can get quite creative; it is also a good strategy to use the same request language for multiple agencies, especially if you aren’t sure exactly what is out there about your topic. Once you start getting information, you can narrow, and more specifically target your requests to specific offices in agencies, and types of documents. Remember, the FOIA is only good for the United States federal government executive agencies. FOIA.gov has a handy search tool to find the agency, the component agency, and contact information of which agencies are subject to the FOIA: https://www.foia.gov/#agency-search.

Draft Request

Ensure that the draft has all of the key parts, balancing clarity and including enough background information. Include supporting evidence such as previously released documents, news clippings, or excerpts from books, articles, or from any other publicly available information. You want to prove that the information exists, the agency likely has it, and that it is of interest to the general public.

Narrowing your Request

While you can technically ask for “all documents regarding the Rwanda genocide” the agency will respond by asking you to narrow your request because the way it is written is “overly burdensome.” One of the best ways to narrow your request is by date range, and to a specific incident, meeting or event, or a type of document. So, for example, you could ask for: “All Presidential Daily Briefs regarding violence in Rwanda from April 1, 1994 to July 1, 1994.” Or, you could ask for, “All documents regarding meetings and conversations between U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson and U.S. Representative to the U.N. Madeleine Albright from March 1, 1994 to May 1, 1994.”

One of the most helpful phrases in narrowing down your request, and also keeping a balance between keeping it open to include many documents, but also giving examples of what you do want is: “including but not limited to.” So, I could ask for: “All documents regarding meetings and conversations between U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson and U.S. Representative to the U.N. Madeleine Albright from March 1, 1994 to May 1, 1994, including but not limited to briefings, memorandums of conversations, agendas, meeting notes, and after-meeting reports.”

Writing your Request

Each request should have the following components, (which are described more thoroughly in the color-coded “anatomy of the FOIA” guide on the next page):

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

License

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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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