Farking Big Indians

The FBI and the Freedom From Information Act

posted 09/06/05; updated 02/03/06

Sometimes, it seems, the world is conspiring against you.

Compared to the Department of Homeland Security or the United States Coast Guard, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is pretty prompt - and consistently so - in responding to Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests. The Coast Guard just sits on my requests, and never even acknowledges them, and the people at DHS are really polite, but let them age gracefully for a year or two before responding. In contrast, the FBI has always acknowledged my requests within two weeks, and responded - generally with "no records found" - within two months. They are, however, frustrating as all hell to deal with.

For more than a year, I tried to get the FBI's files on a local fugitive from the 1950's. There was a tiny bit of information available about his crimes years earlier, but his escape, years on the run, and recapture were all documented, as it were, in about one sentance. Since the time he spent as a fugitive, and his recapture a few blocks from my house, are the parts of his life I'm most interested in, I suspected his files were going to be interesting reading.

The FBI really made me work for them, though.

At first, they threw the Privacy Act at me - because of privacy concerns, I had to prove to them that he's deceased. This proved to be tricky, but it turns out there's a useful loophole to the Privacy Act - if you can document that the person would be more than one-hundred years old today, he or she can be presumed deceased. Problem is, I didn't know this guy's date of birth - that's one of many things I wanted to learn.

So, since he was a fugitive, and even briefly made it onto the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted List", I asked for his wanted flier, poster, whatever. A copy of a 1950's Most Wanted list with him on it. Anything that might have his date of birth on it. Alas, even though that stuff was disseminated freely to the press and public fifty years ago, I couldn't have a copy unless I could prove he's dead... or over a hundred years old. Nice catch-22, eh? My second request was promptly denied.

I did some digging, and digging, and digging... and by pure luck, found out what date he was captured here in Minnesota on. A few hours at the local library got me photocopies of articles about his arrest - giving his age as fifty, back in the spring of 1950. Would this be good enough to satisfy the requirements of the Privacy Act? It was worth a shot, and I sent them off with yet another request for this guy's file.

If you're wondering, yes, apparently multiple, dated citations of an individual's age are sufficient to appease the Privacy Act. Instead of rejecting my request, I got an acknowledgment. Yay me.

Then, a few weeks later, I got a response:

Dear M. Gilday:

This is further response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The FOIA provides for access to Government records where the records sought are "reasonably described" [Title 5, United States Code, Section 552a(a)(3)(A)]. Your letter does not contain enough descriptive information to permit a search of our records. In accordance with Title 28, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 16.3(b), please provide us with more specific information. Any information that would help locate the records with a reasonable amount of effort would be appreciated, such as complete names of individuals, dates and places of birth and the approximate time frame of the information sought, etc.

Sincerely yours,
David M. Hardy
Section Chief,
Dissemination Section
Records Management Division

Aaargh. Apparently a full name - first, middle, last - a one-year range for date of birth, date and place of capture, and physical descriptors don't "reasonable describe" an individual.

I admit, I was ready to give up. I'd taken three shots at getting his records, and been denied all three times. They knew everything about the guy that I knew, and it wasn't good enough for them. What could I do?

Do their job for them, I guess.

They wanted specific information? I gave them specific information. From the inception of the "Ten Most Wanted List" in 1950 thru to the mid-1990's, each and every fugitive who made the list was entered into a big black book at the Bureau headquarters in Washington. A few searches of the web will turn up references to this book, and even a photograph or two. In fact, I found one of the first page, in a 1990 document published by the FBI itself, and while the writing isn't perfectly legible in the photo, it was just possible, if one squinted just so, to see that the third row concerned the person in question. The columns, from left to right, are the subject's name, a number, their offense, another number, the dates they were added and removed from the list, where they were arrested, who they were arrested by, and a number of fields whose exact purpose escapes me.

Find the book, I said in my letter to the Bureau. Page one, line three; try the second, fourth, or last columns, which look like identifying information specific to the person in question. (I'd later learn that column two is the number of the subject's Identification Order, and column four is the number of the case file in question. I'm still not sure what the last couple columns in that book are.) They never acknowledged my letter, and, based on my track record with this request, assumed that this still wasn't sufficiently specific information to find the records in question.

I was disheartened. I'd tried, naively but in good faith, and failed to get his record. I'd tried a cunning end-run around a the obstacle posed by the restrictions of the Privacy Act, and failed again. I'd enlisted blurry photocopies of 1950's newspapers as allies, and made a third attempt to breach the walls of the Record Information / Dissemination Section; it, too, had failed. Even the rebound shot, a valiant, last-ditch fourth effort, seemed to have been unsuccessful.

And so I thought for nearly four months, until one day the mail carrier knocked on my door with a quite large box in her arms. Plastered with Priority Mail stickers and addressed to me, it bore the return address of, yes, the FBI in Washington.

I was cautiously optimistic, but I well remember the scene in the short-lived television show of yesteryear, The Lone Gunmen, in which one of the characters is given a large, heavy box by a FBI FOIA staffer and told it contains the response to his request; when he gets home and opens it, he finds, to his annoyance, it contains only a cinderblock.

Much to my delight, however, my box contained no building supplies, but more than four-hundred pages of records covering a four-year hunt for a man whose criminal history stretched more than forty years.

Deciphering the abbreviations and codes of the Bureau, circa 1950, will take some time, and it will likely be longer, still, before I'm able to write anything about the person in question. Still, having taken almost a year to get ahold of, it's folly indeed to suppose they'll release their secrets in a mere few days.

Perseverence, dear reader; this seems to be the quality most necessary for successfully getting historical records from a government agency. In fact, I'd say patience and perseverence are necessary whenever one is dealing with a government agency, regardless of the reason.


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