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Using FOIA in book writing

I recently finished the book:



Theoharis, A. G. (2004). The FBI and American democracy: a brief critical history. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas.



While I won’t offer a full book review here, this is a well-documented, must-read book for anyone who still believes that needless governmental surveillance of innocent citizens unconnected to criminal activities is either non-existent, an aberration of the 1960s or a creation of the Bush Administration. This sort of clearly illegal activity has been documented as going on since the 1910s, through Presidents of both parties and up to the current day. The justifications have changed. But secrecy combined with a view of dissent as treason is a solid, bipartisan tradition. It’s just more obvious now.



The reason I’m highlighting this book on FGI and not my personal blog is three-fold. First, Mr. Theoharis makes note of another book he wrote that should be valuable to people researching the FBI. It is called The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide ed Athan Theoharis with Tony G. Poveda, Susan Rosenfield, and Richard Gid Powers (Phoenix: Oryx, 1999). An annotated bibliography on pages 385-396 of that book lists articles, congressional hearings, books and microfilmed collections. Second, on pages 176-178 of “FBI and American Democracy”, Theoharis has provided brief biographies of all the directors of the FBI through the present.



Thirdly, in his “Note on Sources” Theoharis offers extensive notes on his use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain materials for his history. Here is an excerpt that shows both the power and limitations of FOIA (p. 179-180):


First, researchers seeking FBI files must pay processing fees of ten cents per page. Given the volume of records created since the bureau’s establishment in 1908, these costs effectively preclude any individual from being able to fund the acquisition of the millions of pages of relevant FBI records. Researching the history of the FBI requires a strategy of identifying the most important and representative files.



Second, while the FBI must release all records relating to a specific FOIA request, to make such records requests a researcher must know how FBI officials created and then maintained records. A requestor can identify the files of a named individual or organization but might not know the names of special code-named programs (COMPIC, COMRAP, ABSCAM). Furthermore all records pertaining to an identified individual or organization were not all filed and indexed under that individual’s or organization’s name. Some were maintained in the secret office files of senior FBI officials (and most of these office files have been destroyed). Others were maintained in other files, not all of which are cross-referenced in the FBI’s index to its central file system. For example, the FBI’s file on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) does not contain all records relating to the FBI-HUAC relationship. Some are extant in the FBI’s files on Alger Hiss, others in the code-named COMPIC file — and conceivably still others are included in the FBI’s files on Richard Nixon, Robert Stripling, or other unknown code-named programs. Furthermore, in my effort to understand the relationship between the FBI and the Justice Department, I requested all FBI files on named attorney’s general, but the released files offer limited insights. Conceivably this relationship can be understood by researching the files on both proposed and rejected prosecutions of major cases or otherwise unidentifiable files in the FBI’s 66 (Administrative Matters) classification.


Another challenge identified by Theoharis is the apparent capriciousness in releasing materials:

“Having filed multiple FOIA requests, I have been struck by the variances in processing of the same report included in different files — having information withheld in one case but not in another.”

It seems like it shouldn’t be this difficult and expensive for citizens to learn about their government’s activities. But at least we’re able to chip away at government abuses with FOIA.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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