FOIA: The Other “F” Word (Accessing FBI Records)

Today’s post is written by Dawn Sherman-Fells, a processing archivist who works with civilian textual records.

Are you one of the many who believe that FOIA is truly a “four letter word”?  Understanding the Freedom of Information Act can be daunting, frustrating — intimidating, even.  Here I will share a few tips that will hopefully facilitate a better understanding of the FOIA request and review processes and ease your FOIA woes.

Approximately less than 1% of NARA’s holdings have been reviewed under FOIA guidelines and released — this is due to the mammoth amount of records that we have and continue to receive. One of the core principles of FOIA is that all information not specifically subject to an exemption must be released, so reviewing records for FOIA requires a careful and intensive, line-by-line process. Of all the FOIA requests received by our Special Access  and FOIA Staff (NWCTF), 75% are for our FBI holdings so I will focus on making FOIA requests for FBI records.  We continue to receive FBI records according to their records schedule, so our holdings are constantly increasing.  Currently, we have 261 series, which include over 75,000 file units, described in our Archival Research Catalog (ARC).  However, the vast majority of these files can only be accessed via a FOIA request.  Here is what you need to know to make a FOIA request for FBI records:

The FBI Case File Number

In order to find out if NARA has what you are looking for we need to know the FBI case file number(s) and whether it is from Headquarters or a specific Field Office.

An FBI case file number can be rather complex so let’s break it down.

A simple case file number may look like this:  157-243-11.

  • 157 is the FBI Classification code (in this case it is Civil Unrest)
  • 243 is the actual case number
  • 11 is the serial or individual document, e.g. the 11th document filed in the case

Because a particular case may have been very active or spanned over several years it may contain multiple sections or volumes — among these volumes, hundreds, even thousands of serials exist.  In NARA’s ARC you may find case files that look like this: 157-243 v. 11 or 157-243-11 where 11 is NOT the serial, but the volume number.  So when making your case file number request please specify whether you want a volume or a serial (if you know that information).  In all likelihood, if you receive the case file number from the FBI you will only be given the classification and case, e.g. 157-243.

Sometimes a case file is so large it actually contains numerous Subfiles.  These subfiles, commonly found in the Headquarters files may contain information on a particular subject for a state, e.g. Ku Klux Klan activity in Missouri, or a chapter of a larger organization, e.g. the Philadelphia chapter of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).  A subfile case number may look like this:  157-243 Sub 5 or 157-62 Sub 15 v. 2.

Don’t Know The Case File Number?

If you do not know the case file number but know the subject — person, organization, group, or event, e.g. Alphonse Capone, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Symbionese Liberation Army, or the March on Washington — you will need to contact the FBI and request specific case numbers.  You will also want to confirm with the FBI that the case has been transferred to NARA.  If the case has not been transferred to NARA, you will have to submit your FOIA request to the FBI.

Got The Case File Number(s)—Now What?

Once you obtain the case file number(s) then contact NARA.[1] A reference archivist can tell you whether a file has already been reviewed and released or if it still needs to be reviewed by our FOIA staff.  If the file has already been reviewed and released you may follow normal reference request procedures.  If the file has not been reviewed you will need to file a FOIA request directly with NWCTF.

Making Your FOIA Request

Try to make your request as narrow as possible to facilitate a quicker and smoother review process.  Specify whether you are looking for a Headquarters (HQ) or a Field Office (FO) case file.

If your focus is of a local nature, e.g. Black Panther Party activity in New Orleans, you will want New Orleans Field Office case files.

If your research and analysis is of a broader, national nature, e.g. Black Panther Party activity in general, you will want Headquarters case files.

Be mindful of your timeline and your information needs.  Make your request as narrow as possible and get your FOIA request in as soon as possible, but we cannot guarantee that the review process will be complete by your deadline.

Once Your FOIA Request Is Received

Once NWCTF receives your FOIA request, it is assigned either to the complex queue or to the simple queue, depending on the amount of information you request to be reviewed.  The larger the amount that needs to be reviewed, the more complex it is, the longer it will take to be reviewed (hence the advice for a narrow request).

NARA staff will contact you within 20 working days to confirm receipt of your request and flesh out the nature of the information you are searching.

As noted above, NWCTF staff performs a line by line review with the goal of releasing as much information as possible.  However, information may be withdrawn for several reasons, including:

  • Personal privacy
  • Social Security numbers
  • Potential witness identity never made public
  • Potential suspect identity never made public
  • Identity of people investigated for crimes that were never made public
  • Financial information
  • Medical information
  • Drug and/or alcohol use
  • Identity of law enforcement officers
  • Identity of confidential informants
  • Any information that deems an unwarranted invasion of privacy
  • National Security (such that might be found in Classification 65 Espionage, Classification 100 Domestic Security or Classification 105 Foreign Counterintelligence)

Documents can be withheld in two ways, either in part or in full.  The goal is to release as much information as legally possible so you may receive a document(s) in part — with redactions. This means a copy of the document(s) was electronically created and any information falling under the FOIA exemptions was digitally removed. A document withheld in full means that collectively the information did not satisfy the FOIA exemption requirements and legally must be withheld.

The FOIA allows requesters to file an administrative appeal with the agency for any information that was denied in response to a FOIA request. You may submit an appeal for the following reason(s):

  • The refusal to release a record, either in whole or in part
  • The determination that a record does not exist or cannot be found
  • The determination that the record you sought was not subject to the FOIA
  • The denial of a request for expedited processing
  • The denial of a fee waiver request

Why NARA May Not Have A File

NARA may not have the particular case file for which you are looking for several reasons, including:

  • The FBI retains case files when they receive a FOIA request within seven years of the date of transfer
  • A document(s) found in the file is more recent than 25 years old which makes the entire case file ineligible for transfer to NARA
  • Case file was disposed of by the FBI under its official records schedule

Some Good News

There are some collections of FBI files that have been completely reviewed and are available without a FOIA request.  These collections include:

For more FOIA information, please visit our regulations page.

[1] Archives II Reference Section (Civilian), Textual Archives Services Division (NWCT2R[C]), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. PHONE: 301-837-3510; FAX: 301-837-1752; EMAIL: