In administering the disclosure provisions of the Freedom of Information Act,
federal agencies most commonly are concerned with "FOIA requests"
for agency records -- in other words, disclosure requests that are filed with
agencies under subsection (a)(3) of the Act, 5 U.S.C.
The first of these two FOIA provisions, subsection (a)(1), deals solely with the
publication of agency information. It requires each agency to "currently publish in the
Federal Register for the guidance of the public" a range of basic information regarding its
structure and operations -- such as agency "organization," "functions," "rules of procedure,"
"substantive rules" and "statements of general policy." 5 U.S.C.
The basic purpose of these publication requirements -- which carry over from the preexisting requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, of which the FOIA is a part -- is "to enable the public 'readily to gain access to the information necessary to deal effectively and upon equal footing with the Federal agencies.'" Attorney General's Memorandum on the Public Information Section of the Administrative Procedure Act 4 (June 1967) [hereinafter 1967 Attorney General's Memorandum] (quoting S. Rep. No. 1219, 88th Cong., 2d Sess. 3 (1964)). To effectuate that purpose, the subsection explicitly provides that no person may be "adversely affected" by any agency action as a result of an agency's failure to meet its publication obligations. See, e.g., Anderson v. Butz, 550 F.2d 459, 462-63 (9th Cir. 1977) (ordering food stamp refunds due to agency noncompliance).
In determining items to be published in compliance with this FOIA subsection, agencies should bear in mind that "[a]n agency pronouncement must be published if it is of such a nature that knowledge of it is needed to keep parties informed of the agency's requirement as a guide for their conduct." D&W Food Ctrs., Inc. v. Block, 786 F.2d 751, 757 (6th Cir. 1986); see also Nguyen v. United States, 824 F.2d 697, 701 (9th Cir. 1987) ("best approach"is to provide "guidance for the legitimate expectations of the regulated public").
There sometimes exists some uncertainty over the timing of an agency's publication
obligations under subsection (a)(1), due to the Act's use of the phrase "currently
publish" with respect to those obligations. The term "currently"
is not defined in the text of the FOIA or anywhere in its underlying legislative
history. Obviously, the Act's use of the term requires agencies to keep their
subsection (a)(1) issuances reasonably up to date, with revisions made as required
with the passage of time. See also 5 U.S.C.
The Department of Justice recommends that agencies keep their Federal Register issuances
as current as reasonably possible under subsection (a)(1), but in no case on less than a
quarterly basis. The use of this minimum time benchmark for subsection (a)(1) compliance
fully comports with the treatment of a comparable publication obligation in subsection (a)(2)
of the Act. See 5 U.S.C.
A second question sometimes arising under this subsection involves
the extent of an agency's obligation to publish a description of its "field organization"
under subsection (a)(1)(A). Consistent with the 1986 GAO Report addressing this subject,
the Department of Justice advises its components, and other federal agencies as well, to
publish comprehensive lists of all of their "field" offices, as well as a list of all offices
at which the public may obtain information or make requests to the agency. Accord
H.R. Rep. No. 1497, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 7 (1966). As regards an agency's organizational
structure, publication in the United States Government Manual, a special edition of the
Federal Register, may suffice. See DiCarlo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1992-280,
slip op. at 9-10 (May 14, 1992) (citing 1 C.F.R.
Subsection (a)(2) of the FOIA, which provides what is commonly referred to as "reading
room" access, applies to the types of agency records that, while not automatically published,
should routinely be available to the public. It requires that such items as "final opinions"
rendered in the adjudication of administrative cases, specific agency policy statements
and certain administrative staff manuals be made "available for public inspection and copying."
The obligations imposed under FOIA subsection (a)(2), like those of subsection (a)(1),
apply to all federal agencies that are subject to the Act. See 1967 Attorney General's
Memorandum at 4; see also 5 U.S.C.
In general, subsection (a)(2) requires disclosure of what might otherwise be regarded as an agency's "secret law." Attorney General's Memorandum on the 1974 Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 19 (Feb. 1975). Together, its three subparts encompass "those documents which contain what the agency has treated as authoritative indications of its positions on legal or policy questions." Id.; see also, e.g., Bristol-Meyers Co. v. FTC, 598 F.2d 18, 25-26 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (describing respective scopes of subsections (a)(2)(A), (a)(2)(B) and (a)(2)(C)).
Nevertheless, the law is clear that an agency may withhold any record or record
portion falling within subsection (a)(2) (or subsection (a)(1), for that matter) if it is of
such sensitivity as to fall within a FOIA exemption. See Renegotiation Bd. v.
Grumman Aircraft Eng'g Corp., 421 U.S. 168, 184 n.21 (1975) (citing 5 U.S.C.
In order to meet its obligations under subsection (a)(2), an agency must allow both
"inspection and copying" of such records. 5 U.S.C.
In sum, all federal agencies should be mindful of their statutory obligations under subsections (a)(1) and (a)(2) as they administer FOIA programs that deal overwhelmingly with "FOIA requests" under subsection (a)(3). They should remember that the information and records encompassed by the FOIA's first two subsections must be "automatically available for public inspection; no demand is necessary." Jordan v. United States Dep't of Justice, 591 F.2d 753, 756 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (en banc). By the same token, it should not be forgotten that these aspects of the FOIA are mutually exclusive -- i.e., a "FOIA request" under subsection (a)(3) cannot be made for records that are "already released under [subsections] (a)(1) and (a)(2)." Id.; see also FOIA Update, Spring 1991, at 5 (distinguishing "reading room-fashion" availability from true (a)(2) applicability).
Go to: FOIA Update Home Page