Freedom of Information Act Handbook
Definition of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
The FOIA generally provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, of access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions thereof) are protected from disclosure by one of nine exemptions.
Definition of the Privacy Act (PA)
The Privacy Act protects an individual's privacy by putting controls on federal agencies in the collection, use, maintenance, and dissemination of personal information. In addition, it entitles individuals to access federal agency records or to request an amendment to records that are maintained in a file retrievable by an individual's name or personal identifier, except to the extent that information is exempt from release. Individual, in the context of the Privacy Act, is defined as a U.S. citizen or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence. All PA requests will be processed under both the PA and the FOIA.
The Privacy Act also requires that agency records be accurate, relevant, timely, and complete, and amendments are limited to these criteria. However, amendments are normally restricted to correcting factual errors and not matters of official judgments, such as performance ratings, or subjective judgments that reflect an individual's observation, evaluation, or opinion.
NSA and the FOIA
NSA/CSS Mission (selection will take you to the About NSA Web Pages.)
The goal of the FOIA office at NSA is to release as much information as possible, consistent with the need to protect classified and sensitive information under the exemption provisions of the law. Where discretionary releases can be made without causing harm, the Deputy Director of Policy, as the initial denial authority, and the NSA Deputy Director, as the appeal authority, use their discretion to release information even where an exemption may be available. The FOIA exemptions used by NSA to protect information are exemptions one through seven. The eighth and ninth exemptions do not pertain to the missions and functions of NSA.
Because of the sensitivity of NSA's functions and activities, the most often cited exemptions are (b)(1) (national security information) and (b)(3) (exemption by statute). The statutes most often applied to the protection of information are the following:
-- Section 6 of the National Security Agency Act of 1959 (Public Law 86-36, 50 U.S.C. 3605), which provides that no law shall be construed to require the disclosure of, inter alia, the functions or activities of NSA;
Two other statutes which may pertain to NSA information are 10 U.S.C. 130, which allows for the withholding of any technical data with military or space application if such data may not be exported lawfully outside the United States without approval, authorization, or license under the Export Administration Act of 1979 or the Arms Export Control Act; and 10 U.S.C. 2305(g), which prohibits the release of a contractor proposal submitted in response to a competitive bid unless the proposal is set forth or incorporated by reference in a contract. At NSA, proposals typically are not incorporated by reference or set forth in contracts resulting from competitive procurements.
To Submit an FOIA Request
A proper FOIA request is one in which an individual seeks records of an agency. The request should be as specific as possible to ensure an accurate and focused search for responsive material. A request that does not reasonably describe records cannot be processed, and the requester will be asked to clarify the subject of his/her request. In addition, a requester may be assessed fees for the processing of a request in accordance with 5 U.S.C. 552(4)(A)(ii) and Department of Defense Regulation 5400.7-R. The FOIA does not compel government agencies to answer substantive questions, and such requests will not be responded to by the FOIA office.
FOIA requests may be submitted by postal service or other commercial delivery means, by facsimile (443-479-3612), or electronically. The mailing address is
Facsimiles, limited to 20 pages, should be marked to the attention of the FOIA office. Requests consisting of more than 20 pages must be sent by postal service or commercial delivery means. To submit a request by electronic means, the requester must access the appropriate option on the NSA FOIA Home Page. If you are reading this on-line and would like to submit a new request electronically, click on the "SUBMIT REQUEST" button.
The telephone number of the FOIA office is 301-688-6527 and the facsimile number is 443-479-3612.
To Submit a PA Request
A proper PA request is one in which the individual seeks records on himself that are contained in a file retrievable by the individual's name or personal identifier. All PA requests, to include amendment requests, must be in writing, contain as much detail as possible to identify the information requested or amended, and contain the requester's signature. No special forms are required. PA requests may be submitted by postal service or other commercial delivery means, or by facsimile (443-479-3612), or electronically. The mailing address and telephone number for the PA office is the same as that of the FOIA office.
To submit a PA request by electronic means, the requester must access the appropriate option on the NSA FOIA Home Page. If you are reading this on-line and would like to submit a new request electronically, click on the "Submit PA Request" button. This will bring up an electronic email. A digital signature is required for all on-line PA submissions. NSA will not respond to PA requests received electronically unless they contain a digital signature.
Requests vary in their scope and complexity. For that reason, it is difficult to provide an "average" processing time. Actual processing time will depend upon how extensive a search is required; the complexity, volume and sensitivity of the records located; the need for consultation among various offices within NSA , as well as the need to consult with other agencies having an interest in the material; and the number of cases preceding a request in the processing queue. Requests are processed on a "first-in, first-out" basis, based on the origination date of the request.
A request will be expedited if the requester seeks such processing and demonstrates a compelling need, as defined by the FOIA, or a need for expedited treatment, as detailed in NSA/CSS Policy 1-5 (PDF Format) or Department of Defense FOIA Regulation 54000.7-R (PDF Format). The requester seeking expeditious processing must provide a statement certified by him/her to be true and correct to the best of his/her knowledge.
A requester has the right to file an administrative appeal if an adverse determination is made. Examples of adverse determinations are a denial of records, the inability of an agency to locate records, and a denial of a waiver of fees.
An appeal should be addressed to:
FOIA Requester Service Center
President Bush signed Executive Order (EO) 13392 on 19 December 2005, setting new standards for Federal Agency FOIA programs by ordering that agencies emphasize a new citizen-centered approach to the FOIA with a results-oriented focus (EO 13392). In response to that EO, NSA has established a FOIA Requester Service Center and has appointed a FOIA Public Liaison Officer. The FOIA Requester Service Center serves as an initial point of contact for FOIA requesters to receive status updates and any appropriate information about their current requests.
POC: Cindy Blacker
Chief FOIA Public Liaison Officer
The Chief FOIA Public Liaison Officer is someone to whom requesters can raise concerns about the service received from the FOIA Requester Service Center.
Pamela N. Phillips
NSA prepares an annual report on its FOIA processing. The NSA reports have been included in the Department of Defense annual report since 2008 and can be found by clicking here.
For older NSA submissions, they are posted here.
Date Posted: Jan 15, 2009 | Last Modified: Aug 23, 2013 | Last Reviewed: Aug 23, 2013