A FOIA beginner's guide to requesting a FBI file

A FOIA beginner’s guide to requesting a FBI file

Looking to get records out of the Bureau? Here’s where to start

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

One of questions we’re most frequently asked at MuckRock is how to request the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s files on an individual. To help clear up the process, we’ve compiled this simple flowchart to make sure you have everything you need before you file that FOIA.

While this guide was written specifically for people making their request through MuckRock, it still applies if you’re using FOIA Machine or the FBI’s eFOIA portal - just sub that in for the final step.

Start

Are you trying to get records about yourself?

Getting your own FBI file

We have a guide on how to get your own FBI file here. Generally, we discourage people from using MuckRock to get their own file, as our ultimate goal is to make this material public. Good luck!

Getting a third-party’s FBI file

Is the person who you’re trying to get the file on deceased? An individual’s right to privacy is waived after they’ve died, which vastly simplifies the process. There are still options if they’re alive, however, so don’t panic.

Getting a deceased third-party’s FBI file

Okay, that makes things a lot easier. Grab a copy of their obituary if you can (.pdf is preferred), and head to the pre-filing process.

Getting an alive third-party’s FBI file

Alright, this is slightly trickier, but doable. Can you get this person’s permission?

Getting an alive third-party’s FBI file with a privacy waiver

Great - you just need them to fill out an authorization to release their information, which you can find here. After that’s been done, and you have that form as a .pdf, you can head to the pre-filing process.

Getting an alive third-party’s FBI file without a privacy waiver

So this is where things are gonna get a bit tricky. You’ve basically got two options: One, you could switch gears, and rather than try and get the FBI files on that individual specifically, you could try and get records regarding an organization or case they were involved with, and then see what you can find in there. Two, and caveat that this is a longshot, you could try and make a case convincing enough for a FOIA officer that there is public interest sufficient to override a privacy interest. Do either of those apply?

Going For It

Okay! Now it’s time for you to do your homework. Either look up any and all information on what alternate requests might have that information you’re looking for, or start prepping to make the case that this information absolutely, positively, needs to be public. Then when you’re ready, head to the pre-filing process.

The End (for now)

Unfortunately, if none of those apply, then there’s not a lot you can do, except wait. Or, better yet, get somebody else’s file!

Before you file

Okay, we’re gonna file! But first, let’s make sure there isn’t anything else out there first - do a quick search and see if there aren’t files up already on Archive.org, the FBI FOIA reading room (The Vault), or MuckRock.

Did you find anything?

Publicly-available pre-processed records

Sweet! Glad you checked, huh? Now, just because there’s records out there already doesn’t mean you shouldn’t file - new requests often turn up new files, so it’s always worth a shot. When you’re filing, make it clear you’re not looking for the pre-processed files, and either link to where you found them, or include a copy as a .pdf for reference. Continue on with the pre-filing process!

Evidence of prior releases?

Quick follow-up - even if you weren’t about to find the file online, were you able to find any indication that there had been releases, even if they aren’t currently available to the public? This could be a line in an obituary, a section in Wikipedia, passing mention in a book or documentary, etc.

Pre-processed records, not publicly available

That’s good to know, as being able to point to prior releases will not only help in locating records, it’ll make it harder for the FOIA office to claim that they can’t find anything or that they can’t give them to you. When you’re filing, ask that the pre-processed files be included in your release, and either link to where you found them, or include a copy as a .pdf for reference. If there’s a lot of pre-processed material, you can ask that it be released on a rolling basis - the old stuff first, and then anything new generated by your request later.

No previously-processed records

Ah, a brand new request - thanks for helping add to the public archives of FBI history. Although not necessary, it never hurts to include some indication of why this person might have garnered the Bureau’s attention, like a news clipping mentioning their involvement in say, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, so if you’d like grab a few links/.pdfs of those examples and then …

Are you a journalist/researcher?

Before you get to the filing process, we should determine fee category in case you get hit with duplication and processing fees. While fee waivers are granted in cases where a request meets six (very strict) criteria, those cases are few and far between. Where you can make a huge difference right out of the gate is by establishing yourself as a educational/media requester, which you can get more details on here.

Educational/Media Requester

Greetings, fellow journalist/researcher! Just be sure to draft up some language making the case for your status (including links to clips if you’ve got any), and then …

“All Other” Requester

No worries, some of the most fascinating finds in the FBI files have been the result of requests by curious citizens such as yourself. Be aware that you will be charged with search fees after the first two hours, in addition to the duplication costs. If that becomes an issue, and you’d be interested in crowdfunding the file’s release, don’t hesitate to reach out.

File!

Alright, here we are - moment of truth. Gather all the materials you have so far, and click on the blue button below, which will take you to the request filing tool. From there, you can select “Federal Bureau of Investigation” from the agencies field, input the person’s information and any extra references (you can add .pdfs through the advanced options tab), and we’ll take care of the rest.

That should be everything you need to get started - good luck, and if you feel like you missed something, start again via the green button below.


Image via @FBI