How to read your FBI file

How to read your FBI file

Summary: As part of the occasional series Life in post-Constitutional America I'm pleased to offer a brief primer on How to read your FBI file. It isn't as easy as you'd think, since the FBI has failed several times to create a modern data management system - which may not be a bad thing.


As part of the occasional series Life in post-Constitutional America I'm pleased to offer a brief primer on How to read your FBI file. It isn't as easy as you'd think, since the FBI has failed several times to create a modern data management system - which may not be a bad thing.

You can get your FBI file thanks to the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA, a creation of terrorist-coddling liberals. The Freedom of Governmental Secrecy Act or FOGS will fix this by extending "Executive Privilege" to every agency and operation of the Executive branch. How can the government protect us from millions of crazed jihadists without total secrecy?

I should note that you probably don't have an FBI file unless you've engaged in suspect activities such as petitioning the government for redress of grievances or protesting unreasonable searches. God-fearing patriotic Americans have no worries unless the data entry clerk is hung over or you have a foreign name.

File contents Most of your file will consist of messages between the Feeb's HQ in Washington DC and one of the 56 local field offices or the many local Resident Agencies (we should have one on every block!). Aided by the finest communication technology money can buy, these messages may be teletypes or snail mail.

Types of messages

  • Administrative - boring, usually.
  • Prosecutive summary - you in big trouble now, liberal bed-wetter or criminal mastermind. Hire a defense lawyer or flee to Namibia.
  • Investigative report - 50 pages of detail on you, your wife, your mistress, girlfriends, children and other unsavory contacts and activities, that is forwarded to military intelligence, the Attorney General, the White House and carefully vetted journalists and bloggers.
  • Miscellaneous - court documents, like divorce papers; credit reports; incorporation documents; military records; surveillance transcripts; and other security agency reports.

Naturally, you can be sure that all of this data is of the absolute highest quality, like the pre-Iraq war WMD intelligence. Mistakes are always corrected, but it may take a few years.

FBI filing system You'd think that the nation's leading domestic law enforcement agency would employ sophisticated data management technology - but you'd be wrong. For example, HQ and each field office maintains its own file system - so file #12-3456 at HQ and file #12-3456 in the New York field office may be completely unrelated.

To paper this over the Feeb's use a 3 part code: an offense code (sample: 332 Media Leak); an office code - and a 3 to 6 digit file number.

The offense code gets created locally, so related files might have different offense codes assigned by different offices. Sounds like an administrative nightmare, but it can help you track the Agency's thinking about your case as the codes change over time.

Reading the file As you go through the file, look for other file numbers. Then you can file an FOIA request for those as well. Don't assume that all the files contain the same information - the FBI doesn't have a centralized database - so collect them all.

The individual documents in your file are called "serials." It could be a 2 sentence teletype or a 50 page report. Most are given a serial number that starts at 1, but don't assume that serial #1 is the earliest document in the file.

Check for missing pages as well. The Feebs redact the files before handing them over so somebody whose wrist is sore from crossing stuff out might start pulling whole pages. One tip: the last page of a serial usually has an asterisk after the page number. If you don't find one it may have been tossed.

Most serials are also "captioned" with your name and aliases (if any); an abbreviation of the crimes under investigation; and the office of origin code.

The Feebs love forms and have hundreds of them in use. You'll see references to them that you can decode here. You knew the FBI was a bureaucracy, right?

Redaction Of course the government needs to protect the few secrets bleeding-heart liberals haven't already ratted out to Al-Qaeda. So your file may be heavily censored to protect national security or the FBI's public image.

Edited information must give the exemption type allowed under the FOIA. The exemption codes can help you understand what was cut out, as well as your chances of getting the info if you appeal.

Of course no loyal American would question the FBI. BTW, if you've read this far the NSA probably has your number. Just saying.

The Storage Bits take We can't expect underpaid and overworked bureaucrats to maintain good intelligence on us, our families and our neighbors, without help. You can help by getting your file and your family member's files to ensure accuracy.

The Framers designed the Constitution to protect Americans from their government. From long experience they knew the Murphy's Law of government: if power can be abused it will be abused.

They designed an inefficient government with checks and balances and competing factions to ensure there would be lots of leaks and partisan bickering. The Bill of Rights outlawed warrantless searches, a basic prohibition that has been shredded in the name of homeland security.

The strength of America is not its government, but its Constitution and its people - a people who aren't afraid to challenge power and fight for change. America was founded by revolutionaries, not bureaucrats, and nurtured by idealists, not ideologues.

May that spirit never die.

Comments welcome, of course. Next, when I get around to it, some words about the acres of spinning disk at the NSA's Fort Meade.

This article is based on Phil Lapsley's much longer post "How to Read an FBI File" on his The History of Phone Phreaking site as well as the other links. If you want to know more, Phil is the place to start.

Topics: Data Centers, Government, Government US

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  • Good well-balanced article

    Nothing one-sided here.

    Those evil Bushies will stop at nothing when it comes to knowing everyone's secrets, won't they?

    Hey, pal, EVERYBODY thought Saddam had WMDs, even your heroes Kerry, Kennedy, and (shudder!) Pelosi. Seems that Saddam went to great lengths to convince the world (and more importantly, his local enemies) that he was not to be toyed with.

    As for Constitution-shredding, just a tad hyperbolic there, don't you think?

    Hey, ZDnet: how about getting a writer who has a balanced perspective on the world? This gentleman has no credibility.
    • Don't be defensive. . . .

      Whether the intelligence was fixed by Cheney's arm-twisting
      or honestly arrived at, my point is simply that it was WRONG!

      Do you disagree?

      R Harris
      • WMD...

        May or may not have been wrong. Did he have a working nuke? Probably not. Did he have technology to research a working nuke? Yep.

        Did he have bio weapons? Probably. Would we be able to locate the couple of semi-trailers buried in the desert containing the fruits of his scientists labors? Nope.

        Did he have chemical weapons? Yep. Now personally I think don't think nerve gas is in the same class as small pox or nuclear weapons, but he not only had them he used them on the Kurds back in the 90's.

        So. Nukes no, bioweapons maybe, chemical weapons yes.

        People don't act on what *is* true, they act on what they *believe* to be true, whether it is or not.

        Everybody thought Iraq had nukes or was within striking distance of them. Nukes in Saddam's hands=very bad day for somebody.

        Now, if you want to argue the reports were deliberately falsified (as opposed to mistaken) that's another argument altogether.

        Saddam acted like he had nukes. Our spooks agreed. What would you have done, hmm?
        • To have nukes...

 have to somehow obtain them or make them. Now we had been watching this country like a hawk since the first gulf war and the UN weapons inspectors there said he had nothing. And what did we find after going in?...exactly what we expected to find...nothing. We knew he had the chemical weapons because he got them from Haliburton. It didn't take an invasion to find those.

          I get sick of people still trying to justify this crap while Bin Laden is kicked back in a cave laughing at us.
          • Bin Laden in a cave

            He is living IN A CAVE. He is hiding like the rat he is, becuse the first time he tries to draw a breath of fresh air, our soldiers will be waiting for him. I would not waste my time trying to justify anything to someone who is so dense they cannot see the correctness of the action. Death to the enemies of America! When it is right, by God IT IS RIGHT!
            Kyser Soze
          • You sound just like Bin Laden

            Talking about living under a rock! What makes you any different or better than other jihadists just like you screaming for the blood of their enemies? I highly doubt one of the wealthiest men in the world dwells in a cave. I bet he laughs his behind off every time he hears that we believe he lives in a cave. UNDER a cave in a huge underground complex... more likely... but like a rat in a cave? Give me a break! You clearly don't know much about the world.
          • Actually

            Actually, we found 550 tons of yellow cake uranium.

            550 tons, not pounds, tons. It has been removed and sent to

            This is the stuff you can turn into weapons grade uranium.
            Or use to build a dirty bomb.

            whatever you want to classify it as, it is not nothing.
          • We knew that going in

            Prior to the first Gulf War, Saddam did have a nuclear weapons program. He had acquired enough uranium ore concentrate (yellowcake) to build a bomb - in fact, it may have all been mined in Iraq, there was an active uranium mine there at the time. After the war, the material was stored under IAEA supervision.

            Yellowcake isn't considered potent enough for a dirty bomb, and it requires long, expensive, and difficult processing to extract a small amount of bomb-grade enriched uranium from it. Saddam had not replaced his uranium enrichment facilities that were destroyed after the first Gulf War, was making no progress toward building a bomb.
          • Iraq + Iran = Nuke

            What would have been a real kicker would have been if Saddam Hussein with his tons of yellow cake, had a cooperative venture with Iran, with their uranium enrichment program.

            Radiological grade material in a few months, reactor grade shortly after that, weapons grade in a couple years.
          • ?

            Got a citation for that?
          • WILCO...

            They showed video of the barrels and the yellow uranium ore in them on CNN also.

          • That's funny

            In 1998 Saddam kicked the weapons inspectors out of the country. They did not come back until shortly before the Iraq invasion started. How precisely did the UN weapon inspectors watch the country like a hawk?

            And as to the weapons they mostly came from Germany, Russia, Belgium, Italy, France. The US provided less than 1% of the weapons he had according to Janes book of weaponry. The British, the Italians, the French all agreed that he had weapons. Did you know better at the time? Did you provide your sources to the government? Were the various departments able to linkup and share their intelligence? The answer to all of those questions is no.
        • Stuck in the wrong mindset

          This line veers wildly off the reading your FBI file subject. But your premise is wrong.
          Saddam was well-contained and the international community knew he had no weapons. You are stuck in the "believing Bush" mindset. EVERY other country, including Britain, advised the US that the intelligence was wrong, and that Saddam was contained and did not impose a threat on any other nation.
          • Very interesting

            I only voted for the current President because there was no suitable alternative. Similar to our situation today.

            Some say GW is as dumb as a box of rocks and then say he master-minded the Iraq war to help his oil buddies. You can't have it both ways.

            It was a virtually unanimous vote in the House and Senate to go to war. GW saw the same information as the house intelligence comittee.

            Our problem is that the intelligence community let us down. As such, President Bush is not only to blame but all of our elected leaders.

            When our sports team loses, do we instantly assume the other team cheated? Or do we assume that our team could have done better and beat them? Then why do we always look at the other political party and assume they cheated?

            The best way to increase the value of our country and the image it projects is to stop fighting amongst ourselves and unite to increase our standard of living, increase our level of freedom and liberty and continue to be the steward of the world's economy.

            We may not like everything about what we have but take a look at the mess the world is in and where all eyes are turned. The world waits for the US to solve the problem as it has for the greater part of the last century.
          • Wrong again

            The purpose of the INtelligence Community is to provide information. The purpose of the Presidency is to make solid and proper choices based on that information.
            The head of the CIA and FBI were both saying that the information was flawed. Yet the President went ahead lying to the American people.
            Americans should be ashamed that a cum stain could get one president impeached, but the lying to the American people and the international community, and diretcly causing the deaths of many thousands of Americans, not to mention mortgaging our financial futures, is something you wish to admire Bush for.

            Who is more foolish -- the fool or the fool who follows the fool?
            You've answered that question.
          • Problematic comparison

            I'm totally with you on the opinion, but you made a problematic comparison. So lets cut this off from a neo-con comeback right now.

            It wasn't the stain that got Clinton impeached, it was lying to the investigator about the stain. But I am still ashamed a President could get impeached for lying to an investigator about a personal matter on which he never should have been questioned that wasn't relevant to his leadership of the country. The current President lies to the world and himself, driven by his personal ideology, about topics that matter a great deal to his leadership of the country, which have caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, yet the opposing party leadership says "Impeachment is off the table"!
          • F.B.I.

            Bush had nothing to do with the present financial mess. He can only be blamed for lack of leadership on that score, This started with Clinton and can be traced to 1999 with Fanny May and Freddy Mac. It really started in 1993.
            We now know that Sadamm had weapons of mass distruction and that they were sent to Syria with the help of the Russians. The number two commander of the armed forces of Iraq has provided the details of how they took the seats out of airplanes to smuggle the stuff out just before the war started.
            Bush may well be the most intelligent man to ever be president and I would hate to play poker with him. He is not perfect, but he has protected us for nearly eight years now.
          • All of these diatribes are wrong.

            Did the administration lie? Of course. Why? Saddam had WMDs as in chemical weapons, and had tested them on the Kurds... they worked, making Saddam a very vulnerable tyrant. The President, on the advice of the Pentagon had to attack al-Qaeda (self defense) in Afghanistan but we needed a base in Saudi Arabia to launch and supply it. Attacking Iraq was Strategic to force the Saudis to cooperate. IT WORKED. The President had to assume that al-Qaeda had nuclear weapons and that 9/11 was only the beginning of a war on the US. GW did everything he had to do. The strategy and the tactics worked and are working. All of you "geniuses" are being used by the DNC in their strategy to regain power even as it extends the war and costs lives. Grow up, study, think for yourselves, and understand that if you know our strategy so does the enemy. Now, go home and watch your assets disappear thanks to the so called "bailout"; and hope you're not pregnant because we all have been screwed royally by both parties.
          • Everybody Agreed

            Everybody agreed Iraq had WMD. The disagreement was what to do about it. England, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, etc. all said Saddam had WMD or WMD development programs.

            Putin even warned Bush that Saddam had a plot against America.
          • True WMDs Were There

            Only the press and Bush bashers want people to think differently. If you don't believe whether Saddam has WMDs - ask the Kurds.

            Anyone who doesn't believe it would also believe Valerie Plame was "a covert agent." I believe she was under covers but not under cover.