35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Where and How to Submit FOIA Requests during COVID-19

blind justice in mask
Published: Apr 10, 2020

by Lauren Harper and Wendy Valdes

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Where and How to Submit FOIA Requests during COVID-19

The COVID-19 public health crisis is having an unprecedented impact on the American work force, including the federal government and its FOIA and MDR offices.

Some agencies are making submitting FOIA requests more difficult, even going so far as to shutter their Records Management offices, while others are making it easier to submit requests electronically.

The disparate approaches across the federal government are causing confusion for many FOIA requesters.

The National Security Archive, led by the efforts of our FOIA Coordinator Wendy Valdes, is here to help. The Archive is maintaining a continually-updated database of where to submit both FOIAs and MDRs across the federal government, available here. Just click on the "Status during COVID" tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet to see what's new.

Some of the major agency changes are as follows:

  • The Defense Intelligence Agency requested a stay “until further notice” in a March 30, 2020 court filing in the National Security Archive’s FOIA lawsuit for records related to the Able Archer War Scare. 
  • The DIA’s Director of the Office of Facilities and Services, Michael Brobeck, said in his declaration that “DIA has had to defer FOIA production, including production relating to matters in litigation, since approximately March 17.” The DIA declaration also attested that "FOIA collection or processing cannot be done remotely by telework-as the systems responsible for searching for responsive material are classified systems, and all classified systems and materials must be maintained within a Secure Compartmented Information [Facility]."
  • A State Department official reported in a March 25, 2020 court filing to several judges that the agency’s FOIA-processing capacity has plummeted by 96%. The radical drop, reported by Politico’s Josh Gerstein, is explained by the fact that State’s FOIA shop is heavily reliant on retired, part-time Limited Non-Career Appointment (LNA) Foreign Service Officers with decades of experience in foreign policy – most of whom are older and “very few” of whom were set to perform telework.
  • State official Eric Stein said in his March 25 declaration that “he ordered the retired employees to stay out of the office for ‘several weeks’ because the FOIA work wasn’t considered mission critical, but he also expressed concerns for their health due to their age.” Stein requested a 60-day stay of proceedings in at least seven of the agency’s FOIA lawsuits as a result of the shortage.
  • The FBI has stopped processing emailed FOIA requests, instead requiring requesters to send requests via snail mail. Buzzfeed News’ Jason Leopold broke the news, noting that the Bureau did not explain the rationale for demanding requests be sent by hand – at a time when all Americans are being strongly encouraged to stay home – rather than by computer.
  • The FBI didn’t stop there; the Bureau later sent home the entire FOIA division with the argument that processing FOIA requests is not critical to the organization’s mission.
  • Congressional Research Service report highlighted by Steve Aftergood on his Secrecy News blog gives a short overview of FOIA processing changes due to COVID. In addition to flagging changes at the FBI, it notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stopped accepting mailed requests, instead requiring requests be submitted electronically.
  • Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press pointed out on Twitter that the CDC adapted to COVID-19 by publicizing – not one – but four ways requesters could submit requests electronically.
  • State and local FOIA Offices are also feeling the pinch. Michigan has already relaxed or suspended parts of its public records laws, and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her attempt to suspend FOIA deadlines during Illinois’ stay-at-home order.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer’s William Bender and Jeremy Roebuck have a good round-up of COVID’s impact on state and local FOI shops here.

Please check back for updates and feel free to contact us with any changes or additions to the database.