Fed-up historian offers a citizen's guide for FOIA requests to the FBI





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 revolutions of FBI domestic spying helped make these records 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.

[HNN: The rest of the article explains in detail the steps one should follow to find needed documents.]



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