DoD FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT HANDBOOK
A citizen's guide to requesting information from the Department of Defense
"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." --James Madison
"All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government." --President Barack Obama in a memorandum for the heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the President's first full day of office.
This handbook is intended to assist you in making Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for Department of Defense (DoD) records. It will get you started and provide you with a brief description of your rights and the manner in which DoD will respond to your requests. The information contained herein is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I file a FOIA request?
All FOIA requests must be in writing: (letter, email/web form or fax). Label your request "Freedom of Information Act Request," preferably within the request letter and on the envelope/subject line/cover page, and address the request to the DoD Component(s) likely to have the information you seek. If you do not know which Component is likely to maintain the information you seek, check the list of Requester Service Centers (RSC's) which are divided into: Military Services, Combatant Commands and Defense Agencies for the contact information for each RSC or write to us at the address below:
- Defense Freedom of Information Division
- 1155 Defense Pentagon
- Washington, DC 20301-1155
State your willingness to pay applicable fees. If you seek a fee waiver, provide a justification for such a waiver. Criteria used to determine fee waivers may be found at http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/docs/32CFR286-28d.pdf (PDF | 18 KB)
Describe the specific records you are requesting in enough detail so that they can be located with a reasonable amount of effort. Generally, a record is reasonably described when the description contains sufficient file-related information (type of document, title, subject area, date of creation, originator, etc.); or the request contains enough event-related information (date and circumstances surrounding the event the record covers) to permit the conduct of an organized, non-random search.
Note: A sample request letter (doc | 24 KB) can be found here.
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What if I have a complaint or would like to resolve a dispute?
If you have a question, concern, complaint or would like to resolve a dispute about a DoD FOIA matter, please contact the FOIA Requester Service Center (RSC) to which you submitted your request.
If you feel that your concerns have not been addressed at any DoD FOIA Requester Service Center, you may contact the DoD FOIA Public Liaison for assistance. Each component has a FOIA Public Liaison who is a supervisory official designated to assist FOIA requesters who raise concerns about the service received from a FOIA Requester Service Center. The FOIA Public Liaison is available to assist in reducing delays, increasing transparency; increasing understanding of the status of requests and assists with resolving disputes. To ask a question, express a concern, file a complaint or resolve a dispute, contact a FOIA Public Liaison (PDF | 24 KB) directly at the email, web form or phone number listed.
Additionally, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) offers mediation services to FOIA requesters. If you wish to discuss the possibility of mediation on a FOIA matter, you may contact OGIS directly at the address, email or phone numbers listed on its Web site.
Finally if none of these methods of dispute resolution meets your needs, you may submit an appeal to the appellate authority, whose name and address are stated in the final letter received from the DoD Component.
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What is the FOIA?
The FOIA is a Federal law that establishes the public's right to request existing records from Federal government agencies. The FOIA is known by its legal cite as 5 U.S.C. § 552.
The FOIA provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions. The FOIA thus established a statutory right of public access to Executive Branch information in the Federal Government.
What should I know about DoD FOIA?
The DoD has two issuances, or rules, that govern how FOIA requests will be processed within the DoD. DoD Directive 5400.07 establishes the overall DoD FOIA policy and dictates the FOIA roles and responsibilities of DoD Components. The Directive can be found at Part 285 of Chapter 32 of the Code of Federal Regulations (32 CFR 285), which is available in most libraries. It can also be found on the World Wide Web at: http://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/DD/issuances/dodd/540007p.pdf (PDF | 357 KB)
DoD Regulation 5400.7-R, "Department of Defense Freedom of Information Act Program," provides procedural guidance concerning the processing of FOIA requests within the DoD. It can be found at 32 CFR 286, and on the World Wide Web at: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2017-01-05/pdf/2016-31686.pdf (PDF | 293 MB)
Due to its size and complexity, the Department of Defense's FOIA program is decentralized among the DoD Components, which operate their own FOIA offices and respond directly to the public for their own records. If you desire records from these components, please write to them directly. You can find their addresses by by clicking on one of the DOD components links located on the far right of this webpage.
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Who may file a FOIA request?
Any "person" can file a FOIA request, including U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, universities, businesses, and state and local governments. Prior to submitting a FOIA request, you should visit the electronic Reading Room and FOIA Libraries of the DoD component you are filing with.
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Is it possible that the information I need is already publicly available?
Yes. In an effort to increase transparency, documents previously released under the FOIA, along with newly released documents of public interest are posted to electronic FOIA Reading Rooms. It is possible that the document you seek is already readily available.
Reading Rooms: Each component operates its own FOIA Reading Room. You may access the Reading Rooms by visiting the web sites of the various components by clicking on one of these links: Military Services, Combatant Commands and Defense Agencies.
Electronic Access: At the Defense Open Government Freedom of Information Policy Act website, you will find information related to the DoD Freedom of Information Act program by clicking on the links located on the far right of this webpage.
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Who is subject to the FOIA and what type of information can be requested?
The FOIA's scope includes Federal Executive Branch Departments, agencies, and offices; Federal regulatory agencies, and Federal corporations. Congress, the Federal Courts, and parts of the Executive Office of the President are not subject to the FOIA. State and local governments are likewise not subject to the Federal FOIA, but some states have their own equivalent access laws for state records.
At the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff level, you may expect to find policy, planning and budgetary information for the DoD.
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What is a record?
A record is the product(s) of data compilation, such as all books, papers, maps, and photographs, machine readable materials, inclusive of those in electronic form or format, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law in connection with the transaction of public business and in DoD possession and control at the time the FOIA request is made.
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May I ask questions under the FOIA?
The FOIA does not require Federal Agencies to answer questions, render opinions, or provide subjective evaluations. Requesters must ask for existing records, such as those mentioned above.
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May I ask for expedited processing?
The requester must demonstrate one of the following compelling needs:
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- Failure to obtain the records on an expedited basis could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual.
- Information is urgently needed by an individual primarily engaged in disseminating information in order to inform the public concerning actual or alleged federal government activity.
- Failure to obtain the records on an expedited basis could reasonably be expected to result in an imminent loss of substantial due process rights.
What are the reasons for not releasing a record?
An office may not release a record when a request for the record is made under the FOIA. The reasons for not releasing a record could involve one or more of the following:
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- A reasonable search of files failed to identify responsive records.
- The request is transferred to another DoD Component, or to another Federal Agency.
- The request is withdrawn by the requester.
- The requester is unwilling to pay fees associated with a request; the requester is past due in the payment of fees from a previous FOIA request; or the requester disagrees with the fee estimate.
- A record has not been described with sufficient particularity to enable the DoD Component to locate it by conducting a reasonable search. The requester has failed to reasonably to comply with procedural requirements, other than fee-related, imposed by this Regulation or DoD Component supplementing regulations.
- The information requested is not a record within the meaning of the FOIA and this Regulation.
- The request is a duplicate request (e.g., a requester asks for the same information more than once). This includes identical requests received via different means (e.g., electronic mail, facsimile, mail, courier) at the same or different times.
- The requester does not comply with published rules for another reason other than those outlined above.
- The record is denied in whole or in part in accordance with procedures set forth in the FOIA. One or more of the nine FOIA exemptions may apply.
What are the FOIA exemptions?
Records (or portions of records) will be disclosed unless that disclosure harms an interest protected by a FOIA exemption. The nine FOIA exemptions are cited in the Act as 5 U.S.C. §552 (b)(1) through (b)(9):
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- (b)(1)--records currently and properly classified in the interest of national security;
- (b)(2)--records related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of the DoD or any of the DoD Components.
- (b)(3)--records protected by another law that specifically exempts the information from public release;
- (b)(4)--trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a private source which would cause substantial competitive harm to the source if disclosed;
- (b)(5)--internal records that are deliberative in nature and are part of the decision making process that contain opinions and recommendations;
- (b)(6)--records which if released, would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
- (b)(7)--investigatory records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes;
- (b)(8)--records for the use of any agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions; and
- (b)(9)--records containing geological and geophysical information (including maps) concerning wells.
May I appeal a denial?
Yes. If your request is initially denied in whole or in part under one or more of the above exemptions or denied for some other reason, you will be advised of your appeal rights and the proper procedures for submitting the appeal within 60 days.
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How long will it take for my request to be processed?
This is a difficult question to answer because of the size of DoD and its worldwide locations. In fairness to all requesters, DoD processes requests in order by date of receipt and according to their complexity. We have a multi-track system where requests are either labeled as Simple, Complex or Expedited. Whenever possible, an initial determination to release or deny a record is made within 20 working days after receipt of the request by the official who is designated to respond. However, due to the thousands of requests received annually, the DoD is unable to answer all of them within the statute's time requirements. Therefore, requests will have to wait their turn in the Components' queuing tracks. To see detailed information on DOD-wide case processing statistics, including time, please see the FOIA annual reports.
Under certain conditions, expedited access may be granted if there is a compelling need, such as a threat to life and safety, if a person engaged in disseminating information has an urgency to inform the public on actual or alleged Federal Government activity, an imminent loss of substantial due process rights, or a humanitarian need.
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Do I have to pay for a FOIA request?
The FOIA allows fees to be charged to certain types of requesters, but it also provides that waivers or reductions in fees be given if disclosing the information is in the public interest. Public interest is defined as information which significantly enhances the public's knowledge of the operations and activities of the DoD. The FOIA requires that requesters be placed into one of the below categories:
Commercial. Requesters who seek information for a use or purpose that furthers their commercial, trade, or profit interest are considered commercial requesters. Commercial requesters pay all fees for search, review and duplication.
Educational. Institutions of education, including preschools, elementary or secondary schools and institutions of higher learning, qualify as educational institutions. The records must be sought in furtherance of scholarly research. Educational requesters pay only duplication fees, unless it is determined that fees are waived or reduced in the public interest. The first 100 pages are provided at no cost. (Note: Students are not considered Educational Use requesters).
Non-Commercial Scientific. A non-commercial scientific institution is operated solely for conducting scientific research. The records must be sought in furtherance of scientific research. Like educational requesters, these requesters pay only duplication fees, unless it is determined that fees are waived or reduced in the public interest. The first 100 pages are provided at no cost.
News Media. A representative of the news media is a person actively gathering news for an entity organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public. News media pay only duplication fees, unless it is determined that fees are waived or reduced in the public interest. Again, the first 100 pages are provided at no cost.
"Other" Requesters. Requesters who do not qualify in another category are considered "other" requesters, and normally make requests for agency records for their personal use. "Other" requesters receive two hours search, all review costs, and the first 100 pages, at no cost.
All requesters should submit a willingness to pay fees regardless of the fee category; however, this does not mean you will be charged fees. Except for commercial requesters, waivers are always considered.
Fee waivers may be granted when disclosure of the records is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government. The following factors are weighed in making a fee waiver determination:
- The subject of the request.
- The informative value of the information to be disclosed.
- The contribution to an understanding of the subject by the general public likely to result from the disclosure
- The significance of the contribution to public understanding
- Disclosure of the information is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.
- The ability of the requester to disseminate the information.
Fees charged for processing FOIA requests can be found here.
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We trust this information will be helpful to you when pursuing FOIA requests with DoD. If you have any suggestions, you may call (866) 574-4970 and ask for a FOIA officer.
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This page was last modified on: 13 April 2018