Processing Requests | Time Limits | Records Search | Exemptions and Exclusions
The U.S. Department of Justice consists of forty-one 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 address 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 requests 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 at OIP's website or FOIA.gov.
The Department of Justice received 63,103 FOIA requests for Fiscal Year 2011 and employed a total of 528 personnel dedicated to processing and responding to these requests. These personnel consisted of 439 full-time FOIA staff, complemented by the work of 89 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 processing 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 that received the greatest number of requests for Fiscal Year 2011 were the Executive Office of Immigration Review with 20,878 requests, the Federal Bureau of Prisons with 15,490, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with 11,089. Of these three Department of Justice components, the FBI has the largest number of FOIA personnel dedicated to processing and responding to FOIA requests, with 291 FOIA staff members, or 55 percent of the Department of Justice total. The United States Department of Justice Freedom of Information Act Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2011 contains comprehensive statistical information related to the disposition of FOIA requests for all Department of Justice components, as well as statistical data related to FOIA personnel and costs.
Once a request is received by the proper Department of Justice component, it is logged into a system so that it can be tracked and identified as it is processed. Because the Department of Justice has a decentralized system for processing FOIA requests, each component has its own system 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 now accept FOIA requests submitted electronically, including by web form, e-mail, and/or facsimile. OIP'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 Justice Department FOIA Reference Guide provides detailed information on how the Department of Justice processes requests from initial receipt to final response. Included in this Guide are sections pertaining to where and how to make requests, an explanation of agency responses, a description of 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.
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 it 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 when "unusual circumstances" exist, including the following situations:
- the component needs to collect responsive records from a field office or other entity separate from the office processing the request;
- the request involves a "voluminous" amount of records that must be located, compiled, and reviewed; or
- the component needs to consult with another federal agency or other Department of Justice components that have a substantial interest in the responsive information.
When an extension of time beyond ten additional days is needed, the component will notify requesters in writing and offer the opportunity to modify or limit the scope of their request.
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, whom FOIA requesters may contact if they are dissatisfied with the response of 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
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 analyzed to determine whether consultations, coordinations and/or referrals are required. Generally, records that originated with another component or agency are referred to the originating entity for processing and direct response to the requester, unless that referral would itself invade an individual's personal privacy or would inadvertently reveal protected national security information. Under these rare occasions, the responding entity would coordinate a response with the originating entity. When the component's documents originated with the component, but contain information of interest to other components or agencies the component processing the request often consults with those other components or agencies regarding their information. 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 recently 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 of Justice 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. When pages of a record are being withheld in their entirety, the component ordinarily will specify the number of pages being withheld. When a page is being withheld in part, the withheld portions of the page will ordinarily be specifically marked with the applicable exemptions at the place where the excision is made.
The FOIA's nine exemptions authorize federal agencies to withhold information covering:
- classified national defense and foreign relations information;
- internal agency rules and practices;
- information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law;
- trade secrets and other confidential commercial or financial information;
- inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges;
- information involving matters of personal privacy;
- records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, to the extent that the production 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
(F) could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual;
- information relating to the supervision of financial institutions; and
- geological information on wells.
The Department released at least some information in 36,295 out of 38,424 instances in which the Department analyzed responsive records for potential release during FY 2011, a 94.5% release rate. Indeed, the Department released records in their entireties for 79.1% of all requests where records were processed for release. Some of these instances included information that could have otherwise been withheld, but was released as a matter of discretion. Most often, discretionary releases were made of information that otherwise would have been protected by the deliberative process or attorney work-product privileges.
The three exclusions pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement and national security matters. Specifically, they remove from the FOIA's requirements certain records concerning ongoing criminal law enforcement proceedings; certain records maintained by criminal law enforcement agencies concerning confidential informants, and certain FBI records pertaining to foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism. Records falling into an exclusion are, by law, not subject to the requirements of the FOIA.