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The FBI Files - An unofficial Repository of History

Large Volume of Historical FBI Files Now Available

Posted: August 10th, 2013 Ë‘ Filled under: Politics, Society Ë‘ No Comments

Large Volume of Historical FBI Files Now Available

Ivan Greenberg

Two large collections of declassified FBI files recently have become available to researchers, which should be of immense interest to anyone writing about social movements and politics. Ernie Lazar has requested FBI security files for more than 30 years under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Now, the fruits of this research are being made available free of cost. Within the past year, Lazar donated more than 1,200 separate FBI files to several university research libraries: Marquette University; the Center For Right Wing Studies at University of California, Berkeley; the University of Kansas;and Tamiment Library at New York University. He also has begun to post all this material online at the Internet Archive website.
These files focus on both right-wing and left-wing groups and individuals. In addition, Lazar acquired the files of leading FBI officials who oversaw domestic security investigations.
FBI documents can provide a rich primary source for historical writing. In many instances, the files serve as the only surviving primary source about the political activities of a group or an individual. They can provide information about finances, beliefs, affiliations, and stated goals (including political literature), as well as providing obscure press clippings. Researchers also can study the activity of the FBI itself in surveilling and containing dissent. For example, information about the use of informers can help shed light on state strategies to disrupt social movements. In my own research for two recent books, I used primary material from more than 100 declassified FBI files. Through litigation, Greenberg v. FBI (2009), I obtained the large files of former FBI Directors L. Patrick Gray and Clarence M. Kelly, who served after the death of J. Edgar Hoover during the 1970s. Some notable items I recovered include the texts of all the public speeches given by Gray and Kelley, as well as important legal documents about litigation in which they were involved.
Obtaining FBI files largely depends on the efforts of requestors seeking one file at a time. Lazar's research began during the early Reagan era and focused on conservatism in American politics. After wide reading on right-wing movements, he noticed "nobody had cited any FBI files or documents in their writings (with a couple major exceptions such as books on the KKK or Gerald L.K. Smith)." He began to file FOIA requests on leading right-wing organizations and then expanded his focus to other subjects under FBI security watch. "At one time, the FBI told me that I was their largest single requester about 5% of all requests received," he told me.
Lazar recently located an important and voluminous file the "FBI Security Informant Program" (HQ 66-2542) which dates from 1922 and totals about 746,000 pages. He asked for only a small part of it, limited by costs, and hopes others will request the full file.
Meanwhile, Michael Ravnitzky, a Washington, DC, researcher and attorney, also has made hundreds of record requests to the FBI. He donated a group of more than 500 FBI files on a diverse range of prominent people to the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library located at George Washington University. Ravnitzky requested these files between 1990 and 1996. "Initially, in the early 1990s, I requested files of several historical personages out of curiosity, prompted by books by Herbert Mitgang (Dangerous Dossiers) and Natalie Robbins (Alien Ink)," he said. "I quickly realized that the FBI maintained records on not just authors but anyone who came to its attention. So I broadened the search to encompass prominent individuals in other fields. I tried to select a large number of people who engaged society in unique ways."
In addition to individual requesters, several public interest organizations (such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center) actively request FBI files, though usually on current matters only. The nonprofit educational website since 2007 has been posting large numbers of government files, including many from the FBI, on both current and past matters.
Until about four or five years ago, the FBI released all files on paper, as opposed to CD-ROM. It charged requestors ten cents per page. The declassification of records in electronic form now substantially reduces costs for researchers. The FBI usually charges $15 per CD-ROM disk, but typically limits the number of pages on each disk to about 500 for administrative purposes.
While openness in government has emerged as a worldwide priority since the end of the Cold War, governments (even in democracies) have proven resistant to declassifying intelligence security files. Many FBI files are in danger of being lost. The Bureau routinely destroys inactive files unless they specially are designated for historical preservation. Ravnitzky told me: "For the past decade, the FBI has been shredding its files at an unprecedented rate, relying on an old and deeply flawed records retention schedule, and thus quietly disappearing important and irreplaceable history." The FBI sends some files to the National Archives for preservation, but access problems remain. "The National Archives has to date declined to identify the subjects of those files it receives," Ravnitzky said.
Ivan Greenberg is the author of the Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present
(Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books, 2012).
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Karl Marx

"He would, wouldn't he?" Mandy Rice-Davies. When asked in court whether she knew that Lord Astor had denied having sex with her.

“I think it would be a good idea” Ghandi, when asked about Western Civilisation.

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