Responding to Requests

Processing Requests | Time Limits | Records Search | Exemptions and Exclusions

The U.S. Department of Justice consists of 37 separate bureaus, divisions, offices and boards, collectively referred to as "components." The Department of Justice has a decentralized FOIA system, as each component maintains and processes its own records in response to FOIA requests. The Department of Justice FOIA Reference Guide provides descriptions of the types of records maintained by Department of Justice's components, including contact information for each component's FOIA Requester Service Center and its FOIA Public Liaisons. The Department's organizational chart is located at http://www.justice.gov/agencies/index-org.html.

When submitting requests to the Justice Department, requesters will receive the quickest possible response if they address their request directly to the Department component believed to have responsive records. If requesters are uncertain which component would have the records they are seeking, they can direct their requests to the FOIA/Privacy Act Mail Referral Unit of the Justice Management Division at the Department. Personnel in that division will then forward the request to the Department of Justice component(s) most likely to maintain the requested records. The list of Department of Justice components and their FOIA officers can be found on the Office of Information Policy's (OIP) website or FOIA.gov.

The Department of Justice received 70,081 FOIA requests in Fiscal Year 2013 and employed a total of 501 personnel dedicated to processing and responding to these requests. These personnel consisted of 422 full-time FOIA staff, complemented by the work of nearly 80 additional individuals who devote a portion of their time to FOIA work. FOIA personnel include attorneys, FOIA Specialists, document analysts, management analysts and disclosure officers, assisted by clerical staff.

FOIA personnel perform all duties related to the processing of FOIA requests, including logging and tracking requests, searching for responsive records, analyzing responsive records for disclosure pursuant to the provisions of the FOIA, applying exemptions to the documents as appropriate, and communicating with the FOIA requester.

The components within the Department that received the greatest number of requests for Fiscal Year 2013 were the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) with 25,336 requests, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) with 15,843, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with 12,463.  Similarly, EOIR (25,245 requests), BOP (15,489 requests), and the FBI (11,579 requests) also processed the most requests in Fiscal Year 2013.  These three components combined received and processed over 76% of the Department's FOIA requests in Fiscal Year 2013.  The Department of Justice’s Annual FOIA Report for Fiscal Year 2013 contains comprehensive statistical information related to the disposition of FOIA requests for all Department components, as well as statistical data related to FOIA personnel and costs.  This information can also be accessed on FOIA.gov.

Processing Requests

Once a request is received by the proper Department of Justice component, it is generally logged into a system so that it can be tracked and identified as it is processed. Because the Department has a decentralized system for processing FOIA requests, each component has its own system or process for logging and tracking requests. Although the Department does not require a special form from requesters when making FOIA requests, the requests must be in writing. All components accept FOIA requests submitted electronically, including by web form, email, and/or fax. The Office of Information Policy's website and FOIA.gov provide all the information that a requester will need to submit a FOIA request electronically.

When a Department component receives a request, it ordinarily will send a letter to the requester acknowledging the request and assigning it a tracking number. If the component requires additional information from the requester so that processing can begin, it will contact the requester directly.

The Department of Justice FOIA Reference Guide provides detailed information on how the Department processes requests from initial receipt to final response. Included in this Reference Guide are sections pertaining to where and how to make requests; an explanation of component responses; a description of the FOIA's procedural requirements, including details on seeking expedited processing and the requirements for assessing fees and seeking fee waivers; a description of the content of initial determinations; and details regarding administrative appeals and dispute resolution.

Time Limits

Under the law, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, unless there are "unusual circumstances." This time period generally begins when the request is received by the FOIA office of the Department of Justice component that maintains the records sought.

If a request is misdirected within the Department, the Department component receiving the request has 10 working days to forward it to the proper Department component, before it is considered to be received. Requesters will speed the processing of their request if they address their request to the appropriate component in the first instance.

Some Department components, such as the FBI, receive thousands of requests each year, many requiring a line-by-line review of hundreds or even thousands of pages. Although the Department of Justice makes every effort to respond to FOIA requests as quickly as possible, in some cases it simply cannot do so within the specified time period. This may be due either to the volume of records at issue in a given request or to a backlog of previously received requests that await processing.

The majority of components use "multi-track" processing queues to manage their FOIA workloads; components' descriptions of their multi-track processing systems are contained in the FOIA Reference Guide

Under the FOIA, a component may extend the 20-day response time when "unusual circumstances" exist. Unusual circumstances exist in one of the following three situations:

  1. the component needs to search for and collect responsive records from a field office or other entity separate from the office processing the request;
  2. the request involves a "voluminous" amount of records that must be located, compiled, and reviewed; or
  3. the component needs to consult with another federal agency or two or more Department of Justice components that have a substantial interest in the responsive information.

When an extension of time beyond 10 additional days is needed, the component will notify the requester in writing and offer the opportunity to modify or limit the scope of his or her request, or to arrange for an alternative time frame for completion of the component's processing.  The component will also make available its FOIA Public Liaison to assist in the process.

FOIA requesters may at any time contact a component's FOIA Requester Service Center to check on the status of their FOIA requests. The Department of Justice has established such a center for each of its components. There is also a FOIA Public Liaison named for each Service Center, who serves as a supervisory official for the component's FOIA Requester Service Center. The Department encourages FOIA requesters to make use of these services whenever they have a question or concern about their request.

Records Search

Once requests are received and acknowledged by components, records searches are initiated. Department of Justice components ordinarily will use the date upon which they begin a records search as the "cut-off" date for identifying the records that are responsive to a FOIA request, although requesters can specify a different date-range for the records sought.

Once records responsive to a request are located, they are reviewed to determine which portions can be disclosed to the requester.  As part of this review, the component will first determine whether any of the records originated with another component or agency or contain information of interest to another component or agency.  If so, the component handling the request may consult or coordinate with that other component or agency to determine the disclosability of the material; or it may refer the records to the originating component or agency for it to respond directly to the requester.

This FOIA consultation, coordination and referral process establishes a framework for mutual processing between all federal agencies during the analysis and review stage of processing. The Office of Information Policy has issued guidance on these mutual processing types to ensure that records are processed consistently across the government.

When the component has completed processing the records, it will ordinarily send the requester a written determination. Usually, Department components will include all documents that can be disclosed along with the determination letter, although in some cases the documents themselves may be sent to requesters separately. FOIA requesters can ask for the records to be released in a format other than paper, and generally, if the records are "readily reproducible" in that other format, the component will provide the records in the format requested.

Exemptions and Exclusions

The FOIA provides access to all federal agency records, or portions of those records, except to the extent the records are protected by any of the FOIA's nine exemptions or three law enforcement exclusions. The determination letter advises requesters whether any information is being withheld under one or more of the exemptions and provides an estimate of the volume of withheld material. For any records released in part, the component will ordinarily mark the withheld portions with the applicable exemptions at the place in the document where the excision is made.

The FOIA's nine exemptions authorize federal agencies to withhold information covering:

  1. classified national defense and foreign relations information;
  2. internal agency personnel rules and practices;
  3. information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law;
  4. trade secrets and privileged or confidential commercial or financial information;
  5. inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges;
  6. information that would cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
  7. records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, to the extent that the release of those records:
    (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,
    (B) would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication,
    (C) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,
    (D) could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of and/or information provided by a confidential source,
    (E) would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law, or
    (F) could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual;
  8. information relating to the supervision of financial institutions; and
  9. geological information on wells.

During Fiscal Year 2013, the Department released information in 38,211 of the 41,057 requests where the Department processed the records for potential release, resulting in a 93.1% release rate. Indeed, the Department released records in their entireties for 75.2% of all requests processed for disclosure.

In some of these instances the Department released, as a matter of discretion, information that could otherwise have been withheld. Most often, discretionary releases were made of information that otherwise would have been protected by the deliberative process privilege of Exemption 5.

The three exclusions pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement and national security matters. Specifically, Congress removed from the FOIA's requirements a very narrow category of records concerning ongoing criminal law enforcement proceedings; certain records maintained by criminal law enforcement agencies concerning confidential informants; and certain classified FBI records pertaining to foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism.

Records that qualify for exclusion are, by law, not subject to the requirements of the FOIA. The need for the Department to use an exclusion does not arise often.  During Fiscal Year 2013, the Department used an exclusion 123 times, which is 0.18% of all requests processed by the Department in that year.