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.
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?
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.