President Abraham Lincoln spoke of preserving the United States in the Gettysburg Address when he said that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." What this means is that the government of the United States was created with the consent of its citizens and its purpose is to serve those citizens. Therefore it is of utmost importance to remember this in order to preserve the country's integrity, because without the ability to challenge the government to some extent, the country could easily fall to tyranny. This is one justification for the existence of the Freedom of Information Act.
There are a number of exceptions to what people can request through the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA. These exceptions are mainly related to the personal safety and privacy of individuals in the government. For the purpose of this article we will be primarily concerned with instances where you are allowed to request information.
There are many different reasons that may inspire you to file a FOIA request. Say, for instance, you are curious as to what projects the Department of Energy are working on regarding alternative energy. Or, perhaps, you are interested in an investigation that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is conducting. You might also be able to look up certain files regarding public figures if a government agency happens to have files on them. However, these files may be available online or through some other route, in which case you should use that path instead of FOIA. FOIA should only be used if there is no other way to obtain your desired information.
If you cannot find the files that you want online you will have to file a request under the FOIA. The American Civil Liberties Union has some useful tips for when you file under the Freedom of Information Act. Following these tips closely will greatly increase your likelihood of success and decrease your wait time.
You should first decide which agency can best address your request. If you submit the request to the wrong agency they can simply reject it for not being any of their concern. This will inconvenience you and delay your request. There are many different resources for finding out which government agency is the most appropriate for you particular need. When you have found the appropriate agency you will want to get their address, but it is likely that the agency will have its own department or address dedicated to taking FOIA requests. You will want to send your request to this office, not the main office. Call the agency to make sure the address is correct.
When you file your request you want to be incredibly specific. If you ask for multiple things in the same request and the agency rejects just one of them they might reject the entire request along with your other, valid, questions. You can speed up the request process if you let the agency know how you would like the information released to you (electronically, or in print; by year or by location; et cetera).
Being very precise in your request is very important and will likely give the agency more motivation to speed your request through the process. If you happen to ask for every shred of marginalia regarding a particular topic, well, you would have given them a reason to take their time with your request.
The bottom line is to be specific, if possible, provide them with a compelling reason for why you want the information, and prepare for a nominal wait time.
You will need to submit some information with your request that is rather personal, but it serves two very important purposes. The first of which is that the agency must be able to find you and either clarify your request or send you the completed request package. The second is to ensure that you are allowed to get the material you are requesting. The original language of the FOIA says that an agency does not need to give out any information if it somehow endangers national security. So you will have to show these things:
Generally as a citizen of the United States you are entitled to request a large variety of information and you shouldn't have any serious problems.
If you are interested in speeding up the FOIA request process there are some instances where you can request what is called expedited processing:
Every agency will have a different set of fees for the different FOIA services that they offer and it is probably a good idea to ask what it is beforehand to reduce shock when you receive your final bill. Once again, this is why it is a very good idea to be specific so that you know what you are paying for as well.
With these helpful hints you can get started on the road to filing your FOIA request. Executive agencies are all rather different from each other, so there is no uniform experience to expect. You will probably get the best results from reading a specific agency's guidelines to requesting information on their FOIA page.
The American Civil Liberties Union has a helpful guide for filing requests: http://www.whatisfoia.org/request01.html
The United States Government Manual can help you find the right agency for your request: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GOVMAN-2012-12-07/pdf/GOVMAN-2012-12-07.pdf
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's FOIA page: http://www.fbi.gov/foia/
The actual text off the Freedom of Information Act Amended in 1997: http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_updates/Vol_XVII_4/page2.htm
The actual text of the Freedom of Information Act amended in 2007: http://www.justice.gov/oip/amended-foia-redlined.pdf
The Department of State's FOIA page: http://www.state.gov/m/a/ips/
The Federal Communications Commission's FOIA page: http://www.fcc.gov/foia
The National Archives FOIA page: http://www.archives.gov/foia/
The President of the United States of America's FOIA page: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FreedomofInformationAct
The Environmental Protection Agency's FOIA page: http://www.epa.gov/foia/
Health and Human Services FOIA page: http://www.hhs.gov/foia/
The Social Security Administration's FOIA page: http://www.ssa.gov/foia/
The Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) FOIA page: http://www.foia.cia.gov/
The Department of Veterans Affairs FOIA page: http://www.oprm.va.gov/foia/default.aspx/
The National Institutes of Health's FOIA page: http://www.nih.gov/icd/od/foia/index.htm
The National Aerospace Administration's FOIA page: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/FOIA/
The USDA Forest Service's FOIA page: http://www.fs.fed.us/im/foia/
The National Institute of Standards and Technology's FOIA page: http://www.nist.gov/director/foia/index.cfm
The Department of Labor's FOIA page: http://www.dol.gov/dol/foia/
The United States Treasury's FOIA page: http://www.treasury.gov/FOIA/Pages/index.aspx
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's FOIA page: http://www.noaa.gov/foia/
LexisNexis is a useful resource often used by actual lawyers and law students. If you would like to go more in depth in FOIA this may be the place to start: http://law.lexisnexis.com/infopro/zimmermans/disp.aspx?z=1501