I submitted a FOIA request to State Dept. of the United States. The FOIA request was immediately acknowledged, assigned a number and I was notified that it is being processed. This was some 180 days ago. I queried several times on the status of FOIA and was replied that it is still in process and that it was in "complex category".

I fully appreciate that pandemic context makes the work harder, but what I asked is a specific document some 30 years ago and, while probably not digitized, I did not expect FOIA to take half a year.

My questions are - is this normal to take FOIA this much time, even if it's in complex category. Secondly, what options do I have to press SD to produce the document or deny my request.

1 Answer 1


The State Department has what I believe are deliberately awful FOIA processing guidelines, which categorize virtually every request as complex, unless all the requested documents are "readily available for release." Exactly what that means, I don't know, but I think it's safe to assume that they would not consider a 30-year-old document readily available.

Nonetheless, that designation does not, as I understand it, have any effect on the statutory deadline to respond to the request, which is 20 days, regardless of whether it's been designated standard or complex. 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(6)(A)(i).

Of course, all of this could vary somewhat depending on exactly what you've requested. If you've requested a press release from 1992, they should adhere to the 20-day deadline. But if you've requested a compendium of classified diplomatic cables, and they've decided to actually consider declassifying them, that might constitute the kind of "unusual circumstances" where the statute permits more than 20 days. Even then, though, the statute requires them to give you written notice of the circumstances, and the extension usually should not be more than another 10 days.

At this point, you have the option of continuing to wait, calling the FOIA office for some polite sabre-rattling, going through the OGIS dispute-resolution program, or treating the delay as a denial and filing an appeal. You cannot go into court until you have gone through the full administrative appeal process.

  • 1
    I emailed Office of Information Programs and Services and, citing the code you reference, I asked for the status of the FOIA and a timeframe for delivery. They commited to follow-up with a specific timeframe. Your answer was really helpful. May 26, 2021 at 18:37
  • Glad you're making progress. I should have mentioned also that you can ask OGIS to mediate the dispute. I've added a link in the answer for more information.
    – bdb484
    May 27, 2021 at 1:35

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