Visitors can be G-men at FBI's FOIA site
- By L. Scott Tillett, L. Scott Tillett
- Aug 29, 1999
Elvis Presley wanted to help Nixon combat drug crime. John Wayne was eager to help J. Edgar Hoover duke it out with communists. Frank Sinatra blatantly offered his services to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, although bureau officials wanted "nothing to do with him."
Those are not exactly shocking FBI secrets, but they are among details buried in thousands of pages of electronic documents made available by the FBI on its Electronic Reading Room World Wide Web site.
The site (foia.fbi.gov) is part of the bureau's effort to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The act, in effect since 1966, gives citizens access to a wealth of unclassified and formerly classified government documents.
Since 1997, the FBI has made some of its most sought-after documents available on its site. Linda Kloss, public information officer in the FBI's FOIA office, said the online availability of the files represents an effort by the bureau to comply with 1996 amendments to the act to include electronic documents. She said the bureau posts some of its more requested documents on the site.
When deciding what to put on the Web, the FBI makes the size of the document a major consideration. The bureau has hundreds of thousands of pages of files that are available to the public, but the limited amount of space on its Web servers prohibits it from posting its larger documents. "We just kind of go through and frankly pick out things that are smaller because of the smaller server space," Kloss said.
For some of the more voluminous files, the FBI has posted only an online summary of the documents. In the future, the bureau also will post information about how to order CD-ROMs that will contain complete files.
Files on former Gestapo official Klaus Barbie, aviator Amelia Earhart, singer Elvis Presley, the Project Blue Book report on UFOs, baseball player Jackie Robinson and Harlem gang leader Clarence 13X Smith appeared on the FBI Web site in 1997, and 45 more files have been posted since then. Files added in the past couple of years include reports on singer John Lennon, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Just last month, the bureau added 10 formerly secret files to the list, including documents regarding organized crime boss Carlo Gambino and the Atlanta child murders of 1980.
All of the thousands of pages of documents on the site are electronic images of the paper documents, posted in portable document format. Many of the pages have been heavily censored and contain little more than blacked out words and internal FBI numbers and notations for managing documents. Many of the pages that have been left nearly uncensored contain information that already has been publicly disseminated in the media or in historical writings.
But the site offers what secondhand accounts cannot. Visitors can play G-man and view what formerly have been secret documents, peek into the mechanics of Hoover's FBI and draw their own conclusions based on the FBI's own data.
Although few shocking surprises lay hidden in the electronic pages, the subtleties and anecdotes of some of the documents may prompt smiles. Take, for example, a Jan. 4, 1971, note from Hoover to rock 'n' roll king Elvis Presley: "I regret that it was not possible for me to see you and your party during your visit to FBI headquarters," Hoover wrote.
Apparently, Hoover was out of town at the time of Presley's FBI tour a few days earlier. But information in the FBI's online Elvis file suggests that Hoover might not have met with the King even if he had been in town. "Presley's sincerity and good intentions notwithstanding, he is certainly not the type of individual whom the director would wish to meet," one internal memo states. "It is noted at the present time [Presley] is wearing his hair down to his shoulders and indulges in the wearing of all sorts of exotic dress."
Also available are Hoover's notes to John Wayne, including ones following the death of the actor's mother, a congratulatory message for Wayne's winning the Academy Award for best actor in "True Grit."
The FBI Web site is cleanly organized, and visitors can browse information in several ways, by perusing an alphabetical list of the 51 files or by topic area, which include Espionage, Unusual Phenomena, Famous Persons and others.
Kloss said the bureau plans to continue to add files to the site, perhaps updating the site monthly. She said some files may be removed from the site if they generate little traffic.