Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Citizen's Guide to Requesting FBI Files: Navigating the FOIA Process

Imagine going to a library with no catalog of its books. Each patron's request requires an educated guess about what the library may or may not have. The library will acknowledge receipt of your request within a couple weeks or so, but it will take an untold number of months for the library to let you know if it indeed has the item you've requested.

The search will be based on the kind of request you make. If you don't know their filing system, the odds are they won't bother doing the extra work required to figure out whether they have what you requested. They will tell you that a search turned up nothing, but what they won't tell you is that they could very easily do a different search which probably would turn up something.

There's a chance the library might not have the item at all, because it does regular purges of materials, sometimes for space reasons, but also because there's a lot of stuff it would rather not share with you. If it does have the item you've requested, the library will first have to have one of its staff read every single page, and will basically cross out things that you might find useful, or that would make the library itself look bad. In some cases, they may just choose to rip whole pages out of your request, or they'll just cross out everything on the page. It could take a year or more for the screening to take place. If they sent the material to a different library, which is short-staffed, it will definitely take years. And if you have a problem with how they do their job, get a lawyer, and prepare for a few more years of wrangling.

No, it's not Kafka's library. That, in a nutshell, is what it's like to request a document from the United States Department of Justice's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The FBI kept tabs on most post-WWI social movements in the United States, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of individuals in the 20th century. Understanding 20th century U.S. history requires understanding the influence that these investigations, and especially FBI counter-intelligence programs, had on the evolution of American political culture.

We are thus fortunate that the Watergate scandal and revelations of FBI domestic spying in the early 1970s helped make these records, which were produced at taxpayer expense, available to the general public. But we are not so fortunate that current Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law has so many gaps that the FBI has found any number of ways to make the process so onerous as to discourage all but the most assertive researchers. Indeed, the National Security Archive recently awarded the FBI with its 2009 Rosemary award for "worst FOIA performance" of any federal agency.

I could write a whole essay about all the problems with the way the FBI responds to FOIA requests. Instead, I'm providing this as a simple guide from what I've learned after 18 months of submitting FOIA requests to the FBI for files related to its domestic surveillance of civil rights movement activists.

Are the Documents You Want Already Publicly Available?

Have the FBI files you want already been released in some form? Here are some places to look:
  1. The FBI's FOIA Electronic Reading Room should allow you to download a number of FBI files, though few if any will be from FBI field offices. Some people have downloaded these files and then re-sell them as CD-ROMs on ebay and amazon. That seems to prey upon the lazy, but it's also an indication of the poor publicity the FBI does for its digital files.
  2. Lexis-Nexis microfilm series of FBI files. Many research libraries should have these, or allow you to request them from other libraries.
  3. Scholarly Resources also provides FBI files on microfilm that should be accessible through a good library system. This includes 30 reels of microfilmed counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) files from 1956-71.
  4. Archival collections. Any number of people have donated FBI files they received via FOIA requests to professional archives around the country. It is worth google searching these, though many archives still have not done a very good job at making their holdings visible via google searches. Important archives of note include the Marquette University Library's archive of FBI records (created by Kenneth O'Reilly and Altan Theoharis); the Dan Siminoski Collection of FBI files on gays and lesbians; the vast collection of FBI files on the Black Panther Party in the Huey P. Newton Foundation Papers; and the Frank J. Donner Papers on FBI & local police surveillance, with extensive information on informants.
  5. Books. Few books provide complete FBI files. One exception is the fascinating book, The FBI's RACON: Racial Conditions in the United States During WWII-- an extensive FBI report with a useful set of appendices for interested researchers. There are a number of others that partially reproduce FBI files: these are too numerous to list here.
  6. Web sites. The Memory Hole and Government Attic have some documents, for instance. Government documents related to your topic of interest might also be available via The Internet Archive.

Locating the Files You Want at NARA

Just because the FBI produced files you want doesn't mean it still has them.

The FBI has transferred a number of its files to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, MD. Before you go to the trouble of submitting a FOIA request to the FBI, only to wait 4 months to find out it doesn't have what you're looking for, first search NARA's online catalog.

NARA's collection of FBI files are organized under Record Group (RG) 65. NARA provides a list of already declassified documents from the FBI files, but it only pertains to documents declassified by the Disclosure Acts related to Nazi War crimes and WWII. You can also view digital versions of NARA's FBI investigative case files before 1922 via the for-profit website, Footnote.

When you search NARA's catalog, you can search for specific individuals or organizations or places. But if your request is geographically specific, you can also browse field office files for things you might not have known the FBI ever kept tabs on. You can do that in a couple ways. You can request by author, so for instance the FBI's Seattle field office is listed as author/ creator in the following way:

Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Seattle (Washington) Field Division. (1935 - )

You can also search by place name and FBI file classification number. My familiarity with which classification numbers to search for is limited, based on the fact that I've mainly been searching for stuff related to race relations.

While the FBI kept most of its files on individuals, and has transferred mainly files on organizations to NARA, NARA still does have a number of individuals' files as part of investigations related to the below series.

The FBI has transferred a significant number of files to NARA from its 157, or "Civil Unrest" classification series. This series was originally called "Racial Matters/ Bombing Matters" and included both civil rights movement activism and white supremacy movements. It also includes a number of counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) files.

The FBI has also transferred to NARA a significant number of files from its 44 classification series, "Civil Rights," and its 176 classification series, "Antiriot Laws," which actually focused mainly on New Left and Black Power protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s-- but these series do not appear to be as well cataloged as the 157 series, and you may need to specifically ask for help about what these series contain related to specific topics or places.

Requesting FBI Files from NARA

To request an FBI file from NARA, simply email them at It's very helpful to provide them with as much information as possible, especially with the specific headquarters or field office file number if you have it. If you're asking for a deceased individual's FBI file, you will also need to include an obituary or some other kind of proof of death. I am fortunate that my university subscribes to, which I use to search for death certificates of individuals who may have never had obituaries published about them.

In some ways, finding an FBI file at NARA is a disappointment. NARA is scandalously underfunded. Which means that while its librarians are helpful and well-meaning, you will find that NARA takes longer to process FOIA requests than the FBI, and will charge you more for photocopies to be mailed to you (75 cents a page instead of 10 cents a page). You can go see the records in person, but that's quite a hassle for those of us who don't live on the East Coast, especially given that you will not be allowed to use form-feeding scanners or photocopiers while viewing the files.

Requesting Files from the FBI

I don't know if there's a good way to request an FBI file. But there is a bad way. Do not just give the name of a person or organization. If you do, the FBI will only search some electronic database of its national headquarters that is not properly indexed. It will not search field office files, and it will not search its paper indexes that it has never digitized. And it won't tell you that there was ever a better way to request the file you want, one which would have forced them to help you instead of just turn you away and hope you'll take no for an answer. has a very helpful sample FOIA request you can use to write your own.

I've never quite figured out whether it's better to email, to fax, to mail to FBI headquarters, or to mail to the FBI field office. I've settled on email for convenience's sake. You can send FOIA requests to the FBI at But you must put specific language in your email that requests that the FBI:
  1. Search specific field offices whose records you want searched in addition to FBI headquarters (for a list of FBI field offices to choose from, see this web site).
  2. Search both paper and electronic indexes.
When submitting requests for organizations, events, or deceased individuals, follow these instructions that the FBI provides when formatting your request. For submitting a request on yourself, follow these instructions instead.

In both cases, it's the information you need to provide, not the specific online forms. It is especially important to include your mailing address with your request, as the FBI mainly corresponds through this method even when you fax or email them.

In general, it might not be a bad idea to cite President Obama's January 21, 2009 Executive Order, which required that all federal agencies "adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure" when responding to FOIA requests, which he defines as meaning that "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Attorney General William Holder's March 19, 2009 memo to all federal agency heads may also be worth citing, because it expressly tells them that "an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally." In other words, there has to be a legal requirement that information be withheld, which is a much higher standard than a mere legal discretion.

Locating an FBI File Number

You don't have to have an FBI file number to make a request. The FBI doesn't require it. But it sure helps cut through all the excuses the FBI might have to not find what you've requested.

Starting out is thus the hardest, if your request is more complex than just requesting one person or one group's files, but a series of files related to a certain topic. As Ray Charles used to mournfully sing, "you have to have something, before you can get something, and I ain't got nothin' yet." You need to see an FBI file, and hope that the file number hasn't been redacted, and that the topic listed next to it hasn't been redacted and is legible, to actually get a file number. Before that, it's just a game of "guess what's in my pocket," in which the FBI wastes your time hoping that you might give up and go away.

For civil rights history, RACON has an appendix with different organizations' FBI file numbers in the back. Some web searching can help. But if you are starting fresh, there's nothing you can do about it. Once you get an FBI doc, it's important to write down whatever file numbers you can for your future research. Even if you don't request that file at a later date, it's worth eventually sharing with the world to reduce others' frustrations with this unnecessarily opaque process.

FBI files have a prefix number for the category of file (44 for civil rights, for instance), a dash, and then a number to designate the file number. Specific documents will be enumerated with another dash after the file number, and the document number. For a list of file classification series, see the FBI web site.

Files of any significance will have two numbers: one for the local field office of the FBI, and another for the national headquarters. The vast majority of FBI files made available to the public are for the headquarters files, which can have a prefix of Bu or HQ. But it's also worth requesting field office files as well, even though the FBI's destruction of them has in some cases been quite extensive.

You will find the field office numbers at the bottom of documents, usually in a cluster, to help the FBI with cross-reference documents. You will often find the headquarters number usually at the top of the cover sheet of correspondence in parentheses. Field Office file numbers will sometimes have a two letter prefix you can use to identify them on files, and refer to in your correspondence with the FBI. For example, the prefix for the Seattle field office is SE.

For more on navigating the FBI file number systems, you may find information from the Mary Ferrel website helpful. Scholarly Resources has produced a publication on FBI Filing Records and Procedures, but I have never read it. Gerald Haines's book, Unlocking the Files of the FBI, provides useful history of the FBI's classification system and its various records series, but provides little guidance on finding FBI documents.

For researching the history of FBI surveillance between 1947 and 1955, this document, "Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Subject Index of Central Research Section Monographs, August, 1947--December, 1955," from the "government attic" web site has an invaluable list of FBI monographs on various topics that you may request copies of. Unfortunately, while that index provides monograph numbers, it does not provide titles. Some (but not all) of these monographs are available for viewing and reproduction through the Eisenhower library, which lists them by title but not by number. These monographs have been made available in a microfilm series. But it's actually much less expensive and onerous to order the reports directly from the FBI through a FOIA request.

Requesting the FBI Files of Individual People

Most of the FBI's files on individuals fall within the classification series 100, or "Domestic Security." Almost none of these have ever been transferred to NARA.

For obvious privacy reasons, you cannot request the file of any living person except yourself. If someone has passed away, you do have a right to see a copy of his or her file. As I said previously, I've found to be an invaluable tool for finding state and national death certificate data to provide the FBI in lieu of obituaries. If your library is not subscribed, you may want to ask them to. I create pdfs of this information instead of printing it,and send the pdfs as attachments with my email FOIA requests. The FBI has accepted this method as legitimate proof of individuals' death. But without such proof, the FBI will deny your request for an individual's file out of hand.

Corresponding with the FBI

The FBI should send you a letter within a couple weeks to let you know it has received your request. If it finds something, it will send you a follow up letter, usually a couple months later, estimating how many pages it thinks might be responsive to your request.

You must reply to this letter or else the FBI will not proceed with processing your request

In your response, which is best mailed or faxed, though I am sometimes lazy and take a risk by emailing it in because I consider that response to be "in writing", you must state that you are willing to pay 10 cents a page for however many pages they claim to have identified that may be responsive to your request.

What Format to Request for Your Records

The FBI does all redactions digitally now. So when you request files that have already been requested by others, all it needs to do is press print. In some cases, it will sell you a whole series rather than bother to search that series for files specific to your request.

This is what it did for me when I requested the files of the Seattle Chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Instead, it provided me with a 4 CD-ROM set of the national headquarters file on AIM, which was over 17,000 pages. This required next to no work for the FBI. The FBI could easily have an online store through which it sold such files. But it doesn't. So you have to guess what they might have already available. Or perhaps there might be a list in their reading room at FBI headquarters. But I doubt it. Unfortunately, the FBI failed to notify me that the AIM records I had requested were largely not on that CD-ROM. They had actually been sent to NARA. It was nice to have the CD-ROM, but sometimes the FBI's failure to communicate such basic information is really hard to fathom. I suspect poor record-keeping, which comes from under-funding, which comes from the FBI not being very motivated to do anything more than what the law requires.

If you have Adobe Acrobat or a similar program, you can run OCR on pdfs to identify words in scanned documents. Once you've done that, you can then word search your digital FBI files. This is very very convenient. Indeed I'm not sure that such files are very useful otherwise, because reading them on computers can be so tedious, and flipping through them pretty slow. A CD-ROM of pdf'd FBI files costs $15 each, with about 3-4000 pages fitting on each CD-ROM. This can save you a lot of money! It can also facilitate your sharing FBI files, which after are public domain once released, with the public through the internet. I recommend sharing such files, especially after being OCR'd, with the rest of the world online or with your local library. But almost no one ever does that-- perhaps because of petty academic rivalry, and perhaps also because most people still get their files as paper copies and don't own scanners with feeders.

I'm not sure that the FBI is willing to provide CD-ROMs to satisfy all requests. But every time I am asked if I am willing to pay 10 cents a page for however many pages, I always also say that I would prefer to pay for a CD-ROM instead, if that's possible. You obviously don't want to have them put the kibosh on your request because they interpret your letter as saying that you won't pay them the requisite fee for their efforts. But the bigger question is whether they're telling you about all the options that are actually available to you in their form letters. I'm not sure they are. So I play it both ways.

Getting Your Files

Processing of FBI files occurs on a schedule whereby those requests under 501 pages get highest priority. The FBI does this in part to encourage you to not ask them to provide you with too much unnecessary work. The FBI kept some pretty enormous files, especially when those files include verbatim transcripts of electronic (usually telephone and wiretap) surveillance.

When the FBI calls you to ask you to please reduce the size of your request, it may sometimes be worth listening. Some files really do contain trivial stuff unrelated to your research, and those analysts at the FBI who have looked over at the file may be doing you (and themselves) a favor by asking you to scale down your request. But, generally speaking, I am willing to wait, and pay the extra money, to get as much as I can. Since the FBI has created a process that is structured to discourage you from having access to what you want in a timely way, once you've made it as far as the FBI acknowledging that they have something you want, I'm not sure how much time you really save in the long run by reducing the size of your request. And in the interests of public access, you may just want to go through with the extra time and money involved.

When you finally get your files in the mail, it can be a real letdown. Gratuitious redactions, ostensibly to protect people's privacy, make some documents pretty useless. The sheer level of cluelessness, and the profound waste of time and resources that the FBI engaged in by tracking the legal activities of socially engaged citizens in the United States is really mind-boggling, and not a little depressing. Grand conspiracy theories you may have once held fade as the image of an incompetent and uptight bureaucracy comes clearer into view. People familiar with the organization or person in question will be amazed at the number of things the FBI gets wrong, and how little its files can be trusted to provide an accurate, let alone unbiased view of their subjects.

Yet I would advise against dismissing the significance of your files, even when they do not provide the kinds of insights or information you may have been looking for. Seeing first-hand the sheer ubiquity of domestic surveillance by the government in the United States is a lesson unto itself. Even if you learn more about the petty and absurd fantasies that government bureaucrats obsessed with control projected onto the bodies of idealistic citizens, I wouldn't discount that learning experience. I already know it has changed the way I will teach history.

But just as important, if not more so, is that one should not quickly discount the capacity of the FBI to ruin lives and change history, even if it often did not necessarily mean to, or did so for specious reasons. Its lack of control and understanding over events made it no less capable of shaping them. And the whisper campaigns it started, the doubts it spread, the way it preyed upon individuals' weaknesses or sought to publicize them in clandestine ways-- all of that remains worth knowing. Even though, in the end, the files may raise more questions than provide answers, and may be sideshow dramas rather than smoking guns for any serious conspiracy theory.

Filing An Appeal

I'm not sure it's worth the effort to file an appeal. I found appeals process helpful early on, because the person I appealed to at the Department of Justice (DOJ) was the first person to alert me to the fact that the FBI wouldn't specifically search its field office records to satisfy a FOIA request unless specifically asked to do so. But other than that helpful piece of advice, I suspect that except in extraordinary cases of malfeasance, the DOJ is going to side with the FBI. And even when it doesn't, it might be much faster and more efficient (but unfortunately more costly) to just get a lawyer when you think you're being lied to or denied documents for specious reasons.

Share What You Know

Given the difficulty required to gain access to FBI files, and the FBI's regular process of destroying files that are deemed to be not historically significant, I would like to suggest that all those who get their FBI files donate them to their local university archives for preservation, and perhaps also digitize them and share them online.

Books for Further Reading

There are a number of books about the history of FBI domestic surveillance, many of them quite bad. Here are some I'd recommend for more information:

  • Frank Donner, The Age of Surveillance.
  • Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operation With Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, 1976. (The Church Committee Report). Volumes II and III deal with domestic/ FBI surveillance. Volume III is fairly rare. But Volume II, "Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans", was recently republished and is available on Both are available for free online.
  • Kenneth O'Reilly has written some good books on the FBI's surveillance of black Americans.

Researching the Domestic Spying of Other Government Agencies

Local Police: Frank Donner's Protector's of Privilege provides the authoritative account of local police department "red squads" and how they expanded to spy on and disrupt the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Most police departments destroyed these files, however. And if they weren't turned over to an archive through some lawsuit, as they were in Chicago (which had files on over 250,000 individuals!), you'll probably need a lawyer to get access to whatever they held on to.

I have very little experience with other federal agencies. The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and CIA have all engaged in various acts of domestic spying-- especially against anti-war activists and draft resistance movements. Some of these documents from WWII and before may be available at NARA and its various regional branches. But anything after WWII is harder to come by, as far as I know, and perhaps easier to get access to via presidential libraries than directly from the agencies. Most of the original documents produced by the intelligence branches of the armed forces about the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, especially produced in field offices, were likely destroyed in the early 1970s to avoid prosecution and/ or disclosure.

With regard to the CIA's MHCHAOS program, that was actually specifically exempted from FOIA in the early 1980s, thanks in part to the ACLU's backdoor dealings with the Reagan White House. See Angus McKenzie's book, Secrets: The CIA's War at Home, for more information about that sad affair.

If you have any tips on prying documents from these agencies, please send me an email.

Hope this has been helpful!

1 comment:

  1. Email is changing the FOIA world. A principle of the Information Age: Government is wise to organize itself and its records so it can swiftly and efficiently respond to freedom-of-information-act requests. Resistance to such requests is wasteful and makes government look out-of-touch. --Ben