1. What is an FOIA request?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was enacted in 1966, provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. All agencies of the executive branch of the U.S. government are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request for them, except for those records (or portions of them) that are protected from disclosure by the nine exemptions and three exclusions of the FOIA.
Note: The FOIA does not, however, provide access to records held by state or local government agencies, or by private businesses or individuals. All states have their own statutes governing public access to state and local government records; state agencies should be consulted for further information about them.
2. Can I access certain records without an FOIA request?
All agencies are required by statute to make certain types of records created by the agency on or after November 1, 1996, available electronically. If you have access to the Web, you will not need to make a FOIA request to access these records. These records include:
- Final opinions and orders made in the adjudication of cases
- Final statements of policy and interpretations which have not been published in the Federal Register
- Administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect members of the public
- Copies of records that have been the subject of a FOIA request and that also are the subject of sufficient public interest or curiosity that the agency believes that other persons are likely to request (or already have requested) them; and
- The agency’s annual FOIA report – which includes such information as the number of FOIA requests received by the agency, the amount of time taken to process requests, the total amount of fees collected by the agency, information regarding the backlog of pending requests, and other information about the agency’s handling of FOIA requests.
3. Where can I make an FOIA Request?
The Department of Homeland Security is organized into a number of bureaus, divisions, and offices. These subdivisions of the Department are often referred to as ‘components’. Within the Department of Homeland Security, each component processes its own records. Therefore, your request will receive the quickest possible response if it is addressed directly to the component that you believe has the records you are seeking. In almost all cases, you should send your FOIA request to a component’s central FOIA office.
Note: If you believe that the Department of Homeland Security does maintain the records you are seeking, but you are uncertain about which component has the records, you may send your request to: FOIA/PA Mail Referral Unit, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Privacy Office Director, Disclosure & FOIA 245 murry Drive SW, Bldg 410 STOP-655 Washigton DC 20528-0655. Personnel in that division will then forward your request to the component of the Department of Homeland Security most likely to maintain the records you are seeking.
4. How can I make an FOIA Request seeking information about myself?
Although certain information may be required from a FOIA requester, no special FOIA form is required by the Department of Homeland Security . Requests must be in writing, either handwritten or typed. While requests may be submitted by fax, most components of the Department of Homeland Security have not yet developed the capability to accept FOIA requests submitted through the Web.
In order to protect your privacy as well as the privacy of others, whenever you request information about yourself you will be asked to provide either a notarized statement or a statement signed under penalty of perjury stating that you are the person that you say you are. You may fulfill this requirement by:
- Having your signature on your request letter witnessed by a notary; or
- Including the following statement immediately above the signature on your request letter: “I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on (date)”
Note: If you request information about yourself and do not follow one of these procedures, your request cannot be processed.
5. How can I make an FOIA Request seeking information about another person?
Files relating to another person regarding a matter the disclosure of which would invade that person’s privacy ordinarily will not be disclosed. For example, if you seek information that would show that someone else (including even your spouse or another member of your immediate family) has ever been the subject of a criminal investigation – or even was mentioned in a criminal file – you will be requested to provide either:
- A statement by that other person, authorizing the release of the information to you, that has been signed by that person and either was witnessed by a notary or includes a declaration made under penalty of perjury (using the language quoted in the preceding paragraph); or
- Evidence that the subject of your request is deceased, such as a death certificate, a newspaper obituary, or some comparable proof of death. Without proof of death or the subject’s consent, in almost all cases the Department of Homeland Security will respond to a request made for information concerning another person’s possible involvement in a law enforcement matter by advising that it will ‘neither confirm nor deny’ the existence of responsive records. Such law enforcement information about a living person is released without that person’s consent only when no privacy interest would be invaded by disclosing the information, when the information is already public or required to be made public, or when there is such a strong public interest in the disclosure that it overrides the individual’s privacy interest