OpenGov National Archives

Open Government Plan 2016 - 2018

National Archives and Records Administration

Section 4: Freedom of Information Act


At the National Archives and Records Administration, we understand that the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a critical component of open government. NARA’s staff, at all levels of the agency, is committed to improved compliance with the statute and the spirit of openness established by existing policy. Our primary goals are to expand our ability to act on FOIA requests in a timely manner, actively work to decrease our backlog of pending requests, find workable solutions to facilitate the prompt review of classified records by agencies that have interests in the records, work with the Office of Government Information Services to mediate or resolve issues that prevent NARA’s ability to fully process a pending request, and proactively disclose information that is of interest to FOIA requesters and the research community at large.

NARA has responded to public access requests for government information since long before FOIA’s enactment. NARA accepts FOIA requests for the operational records that NARA creates while conducting government business as well as for the accessioned archival records that NARA receives and maintains from all Executive branch agencies as part of the National Archives of the United States. NARA also accepts FOIA requests for Presidential and Vice Presidential records subject to the Presidential Records Act. Using the principles and processes embodied in FOIA, NARA makes available to the public these archival holdings. In the vast majority of situations, FOIA requests are not necessary to access these records because they are open and available. NARA also discloses on our website descriptive information concerning our holdings, publicly available electronic records, and digital images of open materials.

Typically, federal records requested under FOIA are reviewed by an archivist when they were received by NARA. During this initial processing stage, archivists determine whether records can be immediately made available to the public, or whether by withholding whole pages or folders from a box of records, the majority of the records in a box may be made available. A FOIA request is required when an archivist has reviewed a box and determined that the records remain so sensitive that a line-by-line review of the information is required prior to release.

Archival Records

NARA’s Office of Research Services oversees the unclassified archival holdings from federal agencies in Washington, DC, and all of our regional facilities, while NARA’s National Declassification Center (NDC) oversees the classified archival holdings from federal agencies. Presidential libraries whose holdings are subject to the Presidential Records Act process FOIA requests separately as well. Initial requests for access to records are tracked and processed by the component of NARA having custody of the records. This process allows requests to be handled by the individuals who are most familiar with the records and who are best suited to talk with FOIA requesters about those records.

The Office of Research Services leads the way in making permanent federal records from government agencies available to the public. This office is responsible for planning, directing, and coordinating a comprehensive program to review materials. Research Services processes FOIA requests for some of NARA’s most sensitive historical records. This office also participates in interagency programs to develop government-wide regulations for the declassification of security classified materials. In addition, the office conducts numerous “special reviews” to facilitate research of restricted materials for visiting researchers.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the Office of Research Services received approximately 2,650 FOIA requests. The Office responded to 50 percent of those requests within the 20 working days required by statute. The completion rate fluctuates with the volume of incoming FOIA requests, including the number of simple FOIA requests that can be quickly moved through the processing queue, compared to the number of complex requests that take much longer to process (those requiring additional review time based on the large number of responsive records or those which require NARA to address classification or other issues).

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, which maintains both the civilian and military personnel records for the entire federal government, is NARA’s largest location outside the Washington, DC area. Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) constitute the single most requested group of records at NARA. In Fiscal Year 2015, the NPRC received approximately 18,600 FOIA requests and completed the processing of approximately 19,700 requests. Of those, 83 percent—approximately 15,500—were completed within 20 working days. Some FOIA requests for military records take considerably longer than 20 working days, e.g., if the request is for a record that was destroyed in the 1973 fire at the NPRC and the data must be reconstructed from other sources, or if the record has been borrowed by another agency. (The NPRC also provides access to over a million requests for personnel records that remain in the legal custody of other agencies.)

The National Declassification Center received approximately 500 FOIA requests in Fiscal Year 2015. NARA’s control over the time within which many of these requests are resolved is limited because we must refer requests for classified records to the originating agencies for declassification review. The NDC is discussed in further detail in Section 6.2 of this plan.

The Office of Presidential Libraries administers NARA’s nationwide network of Presidential libraries. The Presidential libraries are not traditional libraries but rather archival depositories that preserve and make available the records and other historical materials of each President since Herbert Hoover. Until the Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA) went into effect at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s term, materials at the libraries were donated personal property, which are not subject to the FOIA. (The Nixon historical materials are governed by a special statute, the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, and are also not subject to FOIA.) Each library may also contain a small amount of Executive branch agency records that are subject to the FOIA.

Presidential records at the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush Libraries are subject to the Presidential Records Act, which incorporates the FOIA with several variations. The PRA applies to the official records of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and their staffs. The PRA, however, restricts all public access to Presidential records for the first five years after the end of an administration, at which time the public can seek access to the records through FOIA. In addition, for the first 12 years, the PRA allows the President to invoke as many as six specific Presidential restrictive categories, along with eight of the nine FOIA exemptions to public access, and there is no judicial review of denied requests. After 12 years, regular FOIA procedures apply, except that the (b)(5) exemption is not available. In addition, the Presidential Records Act establishes procedures (outlined in EO 13489) for Congress, courts, the incumbent administration and the former President to obtain special access to records that remain closed to the public.

Requests for records under the Presidential Records Act are also subject to notification procedures outlined in the Presidential Records Act, as amended, which requires that NARA inform both the incumbent and former Presidents of NARA’s intent to release any Presidential records in response to a pending FOIA or any other request for access. This notification gives the incumbent and former President an opportunity to decide whether or not to invoke Executive privilege over the records. The review period authorized by the PRA begins after all review decisions, including classification issues, have been resolved by NARA and other agencies, and the reviewed records are proposed for opening to the public.

During Fiscal Year 2015, Presidential libraries received approximately 400 new Presidential Records Act/FOIA requests and completed approximately 500 requests (some of which consisted of carry-over from prior years). Of these, 82 requests were completed within 20 working days, for an on-time completion rate of 21 percent. The libraries’ low on-time rates are attributable to many factors, including the requirement to perform line-by-line review of all Presidential and Vice Presidential records, compliance with Executive Order 13489, the volume of incoming requests, the size of the library staffs, the overwhelmingly large volume of FOIA requests submitted at the five-year point that a new library becomes subject to FOIA (the George W. Bush Library, within the first week of their records being subject to FOIA, received almost 200 FOIA requests requiring the library to process 7 million pages of textual records and 16 million emails), and the complex process required for declassification review and consultations with other agencies. The libraries continue to emphasize the importance of providing an initial response to FOIA requests within 20 working days, providing information concerning expected processing times. Researchers avail themselves of this information, and it informs their further discussions with the archivists about potentially narrowing requests and identifying true information needs. However, with long backlogs at each of the libraries and the increasing numbers of requests, it has been extremely difficult to meet the statutory time limits for FOIA processing. To address this problem, NARA will explore the best way to implement advanced search and auto-categorization tools that will facilitate more efficient and robust search and review in response to all access requests.

NARA’s Operational Records

FOIA requests for NARA’s operational records are processed by the Office of General Counsel, the Office of the Federal Register, and the Office of the Inspector General. NARA performs extremely well processing FOIA requests for its operational records within 20 working days. During Fiscal Year 2015, NARA received approximately 397 FOIA requests for access to operational records. NARA completed processing of approximately 360 requests in that same time period, including approximately 264 requests within 20 working days, for an on-time completion rate of 66 percent. Since 1999, NARA has answered, on average, 86 percent of all FOIA requests received for operational records within 20 working days. When compared to other executive branch agencies with similar FOIA workloads, NARA does an exceptional job in processing requests within the statutory time limits.

Effective System for Responding to Requests

FOIA requests at all NARA facilities are received via mail, email, or fax. NARA also accepts FOIA requests via the FOIAonline portal for operational records. Misdirected FOIA requests are routed to the appropriate office for tracking and processing within 10 working days, as mandated by the OPEN Government Act. As described below, tracking methodology varies by available technology in the NARA office responsible for processing the incoming FOIA request.

The Offices of Research Services and Agency Services use the Archives Declassification, Review and Redaction System (ADRRES), which automates case tracking and the process of reviewing and redacting sensitive and classified materials in response to FOIA and other legal mandates. ADRRES is an automated records repository that allows staff to scan records into a FOIA case file, redact electronically, and track the request. The system also tracks statistical information concerning FOIA requests used for regulatory and compliance reporting. NARA also uses an unclassified version of ADRRES, the Unclassified Redactions and Tracking System (URTS). Both systems are custom-built applications, which are not able to handle the volumes of electronic records now being requested under FOIA.

Each Presidential library has a database linked to the NARA Performance Measurement and Reporting System (PMRS) for tracking statistical information concerning incoming FOIA requests performance and for annual reporting purposes. In addition, the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton Presidential Libraries have the Presidential Electronic Records Library (PERL) system, which contains both Presidential electronic records and finding aids created by the White House. These databases include document-level metadata for incoming and outgoing correspondence that was tracked during each administration by the White House Office of Records Management, which is helpful to NARA staff in finding documents that are potentially responsive to FOIA requests. Electronic records created during the George W. Bush administration are stored in NARA’s Electronic Records Archives . This system also contains finding aids at the document and/or folder level for millions of textual records created during the administration. The search functionality of the ERA instance which contains records from the Executive Office of the President as well as these finding aids are used to identify responsive records at the George W. Bush Presidential Library, whose records became subject to FOIA on January 20, 2014.

Each NARA location outside of the Washington, DC, area receives and processes its own FOIA requests. The vast majority of FOIA requests received outside of the Washington, DC, area are for Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs), which are processed by the NPRC in St. Louis. Accordingly, NARA created a Case Management Reporting System (CMRS), which allows for electronic tracking of all requests for OMPFs. At the NPRC, all requests pertaining to military veterans are entered into this database and then tracked and processed. All new cases are received electronically or converted to electronic images upon receipt.

This system also allows for collecting various analytical data about FOIA requests. Since the system’s implementation, FOIA performance has improved drastically. In Fiscal Year 2003, 60 percent of FOIA requests for military records were completed in 20 working days. By Fiscal Year 2005, the on-time completion rate was 84 percent; as of March 2012, the rate was 91 percent.

To process the FOIA requests for NARA’s operational records, NARA began using FOIAonline, an interagency online portal for FOIA requests. This portal allows NARA to track FOIA requests and requesters to easily access their requests and responsive documents. NARA logs each request it receives and provides a data feed concerning each request to the PMRS, which monitors the processing of FOIA requests against the goals outlined in the annual performance plan. The Chief FOIA Officer and NARA office heads use the data in PMRS to monitor processing, assess the backlogs, set priorities and determine areas for improvement in the process. NARA’s Fiscal Year 2014 goal is to process 85 percent of FOIA requests within 20 working days. In the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, 64 percent of requests for NARA operational records were processed within 20 working days.

FOIA Processing and Backlogs
NARA continues to work toward a reduction of its backlog of pending FOIA requests. In Fiscal Year 2016, NARA was able to close out our 10 oldest FOIA requests, which were also the 10 oldest FOIAs in the federal government. However, since NARA’s last Open Government Plan, the backlog has increased by 457 requests. NARA received 22,555 requests in Fiscal Year 2015, an increase of 318 requests over the 22,237 requests received in Fiscal Year 2014. Halfway through Fiscal Year 2016, NARA has already received 28,861 FOIA requests however, including a more than 50 percent increase at the National Personnel Records Center.

Although NARA has made significant strides to enhance performance on the processing of FOIA requests, we still face significant challenges. Like many government agencies, NARA faces budgetary and staffing limitations that impede our ability to meet FOIA goals.

A breakdown of our current work of pending FOIAs is outlined below by NARA office:

NARA Office

(Approximate) FOIA Backlog as of 4/13/16

Research Services


Office of Presidential Libraries


Agency Services


Operational Records


All NARA Offices



Learn More
Information concerning NARA’s FOIA program can be found on our website at For information about the Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA Ombudsman, please visit Section 6.5 of this plan.