Freedom of Information Act Program
May 7, 2010
A brand new electronic request form is now available from the Freedom of Information Act area of the FBI.
Mr. Schiff: Hello. I’m Neal Schiff, and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. You probably know the FBI has a lot of files, both criminal and civil. And you may know that some of the files are available to you for reading either on the Internet or by requesting them to be sent to you. A brand new electronic request form is now available from the Freedom of Information Act area of the FBI. To help you understand how all this works, Joel Miller, an attorney in the FBI’s Office of General Counsel, says the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, has been on the books since the mid-1960s.
Mr. Miller: “Back in 1966, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, and that didn’t go into effect, actually, until July 5, 1967. It had a basic premise that was very simple: The public’s got a right to know how the government works.
Now, there have been several amendments, because as you get experience, you make your corrections and you change with the times. The most recent amendment was in 2007 with the Open Government Act, but the basic statute remains intact and it is viable even today.
A significant amendment in 1986 brought the FOIA into the electronic age, recognizing other media other than just paper. I’ve also got to tell you that one of the very first things that President Obama did was to sign an executive order which stated his commitment to openness and transparency in the federal government.”
Mr. Schiff: How does the FOIA request work?
Mr. Miller: “It’s really basically very simple. I’ll give it to you in a nutshell, because I can make anything complicated for you. In a nutshell, a request comes in; the Record Information Dissemination Section of the Records Management Division ensures that it is a proper request; that is, the right format and everything like that. They do a search of our central records system for records that answer the question; we would call that ‘responsive to the request.’
They process those records and then they would make a release to the requestor. By process, I mean that they would redact information, take it out, using applicable FIOA exceptions. A redaction, by the way, is when you remove words, phrases, passages, things like that from a page of a record based on one of the nine FOIA exceptions. If you were to take out the entire page, we would call that ‘withholding in its entirety.’
Where it is necessary, we of course would let the operational unit who owns the records take a look at what we propose to release and they would get a chance to comment on it and, of course, those comments would be taken into account before any release would be made.”
Mr. Schiff: We asked Mr. Miller, What are FOIA exemptions?
Mr. Miller: “Congress recognized that you just can’t give everything to everyone. There are some things that you just can’t make public. Let me give you an example. There are national security considerations, an individual’s privacy considerations, and of course, we never would want to compromise an ongoing investigation. So those are just three examples of exemptions.
So exemptions allow you to take information out and not provide it to the requestor. Without the exemptions, of course, you just have to give un-redacted records, which I don’t think anybody really wants.”
Mr. Schiff: If somebody wanted to see an FBI file that is not on the Internet, what do they have to do?
Mr. Miller: “I would recommend that they go to the Internet, of course, and that will tell you, right on our page, the way to request records. It is user-friendly and it’s simple. The requestor writes to the Record Information Dissemination Section (RIDS) in the Records Management Division in Winchester, Virginia, and RIDS will respond.”
Mr. Schiff: What are some of the FOIA files that are on the Internet that listeners would be familiar with?
Mr. Miller: “Well first of all, let me invite the listeners to go and take a look at that website because it is fascinating to just take a look through and see those files. They have files on celebrities like Michael Jackson, Jackie Kennedy, and the Beatles. Of course they have the gangster files that everybody likes to look at: John Dillinger, and Al Capone. And there are even files on unusual phenomenon like Roswell and UFOs.”
Mr. Schiff: What does someone have to do to request a file?
Mr. Miller: “Well as I mentioned earlier, all they really have to do is write to RIDS and be as specific in the request as possible, because the more information you provide, the more information you can get back and the easier it will be to do the search. Now the RIDS folks in Winchester do all they can to help the requester to get what they want. It is a user-friendly operation. They open a dialogue with the requester to help them hone in on exactly what they are looking for.”
Mr. Schiff: I asked Miller if there are some rules and regulations regarding files on people who are still alive.
Mr. Miller: “Absolutely. Remember, I mentioned one of the exemptions is respecting the privacy of individuals, and before even a search for records would be conducted, the personnel out in Winchester would ask for either a proof of death, a privacy waiver from the individual, or showing that the public’s interest in knowing that information overrides any privacy considerations.
There’s also kind of a variation on that: If you show in your request that you are looking for information on a public figure, all of the public source information on that figure, that is, newspaper articles, anything else that might have been published that is already out there in the public, we would provide to you.”
Mr. Schiff: Are there any controversial requests that come up from the public or the media?
Mr. Miller: “Well, what do you mean by ‘controversial?’ If you mean are there requests that are very difficult to handle because they ask complex questions, questions about sensitive areas, sure—they get them all the time.”
Mr. Schiff: How many requests a year, on average, does the FBI FOIA Program area receive from the public, the media, and others?
Mr. Miller: “Well, every year there’s a requirement that we publish a report through the Department of Justice. And according to last year’s report—fiscal year 2009—the FBI received over 15,600 requests. And as you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of other agencies, or even other DOJ components, that get more, although the Bureau of Prisons just barely beat us out by having 59 more FOIA requests than we did in fiscal year 2009.”
Mr. Schiff: We asked Miller about deceased individuals whose FBI files are on the Internet for all to see?
Mr. Miller: “Well, the Internet is actually responding to the FOIA demand that we have a reading a room, and in this electronic age, we have an electronic reading room, which is the Internet. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of really interesting files on there. For example, we have files posted there on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Of course we’ve got the standard Hollywood celebrities; Steve Allen is there; Desi Arnez; Lucille Ball; Supreme Court justices are there; Hugo Black’s file—any number of famous people, including Henry Ford; inventors; we have presidents, John F. Kennedy; fathers of presidents, Joseph Kennedy is on there; Martin Luther King’s file is posted there; Malcom X’s file; any number of people as I have mentioned. And of course, I can’t forget we’ve got the King on there, Elvis.”
Mr. Schiff: Interested in a file that’s at the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Write to the FBI, Attention: FOIPA Request, 170 Marcel Drive, Winchester, Virginia, 22602-4843; or you may e-mail your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Much more information on the Internet at www.fbi.gov. That’s our show for this week. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.
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