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Declassified Intelligence Documents: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Tips, techniques & links to help you find answers for your research papers & projects

How to Acquire Materials through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

To acquire declassified documents not yet available through the avenues listed above, individuals and organizations may utilize the Freedom of Information Act. Passed in 1966, and amended greatly in the years immediately following Watergate, the FOIA :

  1. Established the right to know about the activities of the Executive branch
  2. Provided any person with access to identifiable, existing records of departments and agencies without having to demonstrate need or reason
  3. Allowed for disputes over the availability of such records to be settled in court
  4. Created exemptions to access based upon national defense, foreign policy issues, and privacy concerns.

In order to acquire information under the FOIA, the requester must do the following:

  1. Identify the agency that may have records
  2. Provide a description of the document(s) sought,
  3. Send a letter in an envelope marked “FOIA Request” with contact information including email address and/or phone number. Requests may also be sent by email.

Some agencies require a signed statement or notarized statement attesting that the requester is who s/he claims. It is often helpful to refer to a department or agency’s web site for additional information regarding FOIA requests. Agencies may charge fees for duplicating, searching, and review (these fees can be waived for those unwilling and/or unable to pay fees).

By submitting an FOIA request, one makes a tacit acceptance of willingness to pay minor fees associated with the FOIA request. It is the responsibility of requesters to ask for a partial or full fee waiver. Requesters should also indicate if they are willing to pay additional fees for time spent search for documents and photocopying.

To gain access to declassified documents, the user is advised to know all of the following:

  1. What agency generated the documents as the request process is expedited if one knows the specific office, bureau, or “component”
  2. When the documents were created
  3. Who researched, wrote, contributed, etc. to the documents
  4. Where the documents might be now (for example, in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Archives, a presidential library, etc.)

There are times in research when an individual or organization wants to research a specific event, foreign policy issue, or some historical aspect of international relations. In the case of discovery research, the patron may not know exactly what s/he is seeking. The process of obtaining declassified documents may require “bulldog tenacity.” Individuals and organizations are encouraged to start the search early and be persistent. For further information, see the FOIA website.

Researchers may also check with the National Freedom of Information Coalition for assistance with FOIA requests and agency compliance.