The Freedom of Information Act generally provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.
Under subsection (a)(3) of the FOIA -- by far the most commonly utilized part of the Act -- all records not made available to the public under subsections (a)(1) or (a)(2), or exempted from mandatory disclosure under subsection (b), or excluded under subsection (c), are subject to disclosure upon an agency's receipt of a proper FOIA request from any person.
The FOIA specifies only two requirements for an access request: It must "reasonably describe" the records sought and it must be made in accordance with the agency's published FOIA regulations. Because "a person need not title a request for government records a 'FOIA request,'" agencies should use sound administrative discretion when determining the nature of an access request. For example, a first-party access request that cites only the Privacy Act of 1974 should be processed under both that statute and the FOIA.
The legislative history of the 1974 FOIA amendments indicates that a description of a requested record that enables a professional agency employee familiar with the subject area to locate the record with a "reasonable amount of effort" is sufficient.Courts have explained that "[t]he rationale for this rule is that FOIA was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requesters," or to allow requesters to conduct "fishing expeditions" through agency files. Accordingly, one FOIA request was held invalid because it required an agency's FOIA staff either to have "clairvoyant capabilities" to discern the requester's needs or to spend "countless numbers of personnel hours seeking needles in bureaucratic haystacks."
However, the fact that a FOIA request is very broad or "burdensome" in its magnitude does not, in and of itself, entitle an agency to deny that request on the basis that it does not "reasonably describe" the records sought. The key factor is the ability of an agency's staff to reasonably ascertain exactly which records are being requested and locate them. The courts have held only that agencies are not required to conduct wide-ranging, "unreasonably burdensome" searches for records.