How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records.

Making government work better.
June 24 2008 12:47 PM

The Department of Forgetting

How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records.

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The FBI took an interest because the case involved lefties. I already have its thick file labeled "Willie McGee," and Iwon't have much problem gathering info about the famous people—Einstein's file is so popular that the FBI has put it online. But the smaller fries like Poole are at risk, and to me they're just as important. Poole was a white lawyer from Mississippi who represented McGee during his third circuit-court trial, and though he wasn't a Communist, he got Red-baited by fellow lawyers on the other side of the case. This led to his getting disbarred, at the end of a murky process, the basic facts of which are hard to pin down. I'd hoped an FBI file on him might contain useful information.

Which brings us back to the Records Retention Plan. The reason the Poole file might not exist anymore dates back to the early days of FOIA, which was enacted by Congress in 1966. For the first several years, the FBI was largely successful in fending off FOIA requests, which is exactly how J. Edgar Hoover wanted it. "One precept of Hoover's was that these are our files, they're nobody else's, and nobody else can have them," says Scott Hodes, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who ran the FBI's FOIA litigation unit from 1998 to 2002.

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But Congress changed the playing field in the wake of Watergate, making it easier for researchers to get their hands on FBI material. According to Ivan Greenberg, an independent researcher who is writing a book about the FBI and civil liberties called Trouble Times,the new rules led the FBI to conduct a massive internal purging of files, among them more than 330,000 pages from the FBI's file on "Sex Deviates," which tracked homosexuals in government.

That phase of house-cleaning came to a halt in 1980, thanks to a case brought by the American Friends Service Committee and a host of plaintiffs, including Daniel Ellsberg and Jessica Mitford. The suit was prompted in part by unchecked file dumping at FBI field offices in cities like New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The plaintiffs won, and Judge Harold H. Greene ordered the FBI and NARA to conduct an inventory and come up with a plan about what would be kept and destroyed.

A 17-member body dove into that task in 1981. According to a summary of the appraisal process written by archivist James Gregory Bradsher, they were confronted with files that took up 500,000 cubic feet of shelf space in 70 locations. (To put that in perspective, the volume of the Washington Monument is just over 1 million cubic feet, so the files would have filled it about halfway.) Obviously, the archivists didn't sit down and study every word. The process relied on a method developed in the late '70s during a review of 35,000 cubic feet of records from the Massachusetts Superior Court. It involved a systematic sampling designed to answer a macro-question: What percentage of the FBI's total holdings seemed to have genuine historic value?

The team reviewed roughly 20,000 files from FBI headquarters and seven major field offices—with FBI personnel on hand to pull files individually and hand them over—scribbling information about the contents on a data-collection sheet that asked some 75 questions. How thick was the file? ("Fat file theory," a rather obvious guidepost used in the Massachusetts review, holds that if there's a lot of stuff inside a folder, it might be important.) What were the results of the case? Whom or what was it about? What forms of intelligence-gathering were used?

Using this data, files were rated according to a scale of perceived research potential, with four main values applied: no, low, medium, and high. By May of 1981, a review of 5,832 headquarters files yielded a breakdown that went like so: 71 percent of files were deemed to have no value; 22 percent had low; 5 percent had medium; and less than 1 percent had high. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, who worked on that review and later served as the acting archivist of the United States during the Clinton administration, told me the group looked at samples of records from each of the 214 filing classifications used by the FBI. Then as now, the Bureau arranged its material in large categories that are each assigned a number. For example, 44 is Civil Rights, 76 is Escaped Federal Prisoner, and 100 is Domestic Security, which covers subversive activities on the left and right. New categories have been added since the big review in the '80s, covering crimes like Tampering with Consumer Products (251) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (280). Some but not all of these categories have subsequently been sampled and analyzed by NARA.

For each classification, the 1981 assessmentgroup came up with a rule for the FBI, describing in big-picture terms what they had to keep and what they could consider for destruction, a process that led to a final retention rate of about 20 percent. Civil Rights came through with broad protection. For that large category—there was a total of 234,379 cases in the headquarters and field offices combined—everything created prior to 1977 was marked "permanent," thanks to the assumedhistorical value of this subject. Presumably, John Poole wasn't a class 44 Civil Rights case, or his file would not be sleeping with the banana peels. My initial guess—the FBI's response didn't say—was that he was filed under 100, Domestic Security. There were more cases created in the Domestic Security category than in Civil Rights—1,790,191 as of 1981. The destruction guidelines on this class are looser, however, and if Poole was in there, he didn't make the cut.

The system's fundamentals make sense, I guess—very complicated sense—but to me the disturbing part comes at the end of the line. At some point 25 years after a case closes, a file that isn't marked "permanent" gets pulled and looked at by one or two people inside the FBI. There are no "knowledgeable representatives of the NARA" monitoring this crucial moment. If it's decided internally that the file isn't important, it's gone.