Making a formal request: A simple letter is all you need

If the informal approach does not succeed, exercise your rights under FOIA to make a formal request. To preserve all your rights under the Act, your formal request must be made in writing. Any reporter should be able to prepare a request letter on his or her own. (See our online FOIA Request Letter.)

Each federal agency subject to FOIA has a designated FOIA Service Center and a Chief FOIA Officer responsible for managing information requests. Large cabinet agencies, such as Defense and Agriculture, have separate FOIA Service Centers for their various subdivisions and regional offices. If you are sure which subdivision of an agency has the records you want, send your request letter directly to that FOIA officer. If you are uncertain, send your request to the agency or departmental FOIA officer, who will then forward it to the appropriate division. You will save time by calling the agency first to determine where the records you seek are located and where you should direct your request. (See our updated list of agency FOIA officers and their contact information.)

Sometimes it is advisable to send separate requests to agency headquarters and to field offices that may have records you want. The FBI, for example, searches its field offices for records only when requests are made directly to those offices; a request to the bureau in Washington, D.C., will lead only to a search of its central files. If you are unsure which federal agency or office has the records you want, send the same request to several of them.

Address your request letter to the FOIA officer at the appropriate agency or subdivision. Agencies will accept a request by hand delivery, mail or e-mail. If you mail your request, mark the outside of the envelope “FOIA Request.” If you send the request by registered mail with return receipt requested, you may be able to track the request if you should later need to do so. Keeping a photocopy of your letter and your receipt will also help you later if you need to make an appeal. Some agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, have built FOIA request generators into their Web sites to receive requests electronically. All agencies are required to accept FOIA requests via e-mail.

Generally, a request letter should contain the elements included in the Sample FOIA Request Letter. However, any written request is covered by FOIA. In most cases, you should be able to draft a simple request letter by yourself. The Reporters Committee provides an online FOIA letter generator (www.rcfp.org/foialetter) that asks a requester to simply fill in the required information, and produces a request letter. If you are a journalist and need assistance, you can call the Reporters Committee’s FOIA attorneys on our toll-free hotline at 1-800-336-4243 or send e-mail to hotline@rcfp.org.