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.

(Continued from Page 2)

Michael Ravnitzky, an FOIA researcher based in the Washington, D.C., area, is no fan of the Records Retention Plan and likens it to an open-ended manual for strip-mining a priceless public record. "The FBI got a list of exceptional files given to them by historians, and they said, 'We'll keep that,' " he says. "We'll keep large files. Smaller files, we'll keep a sampling. Everything else gets tossed. That's what the plan is." Based on documents Ivan Greenberg obtained from the FBI, he estimates that 250 million pages were destroyed between 1986 and 1995.

But isn't the FBI destroying only junk? I doubt it. Ernie Lazar, an independent researcher in California whose particular interest is in far-right groups, sent me a list of "destroyed" responses he's received over the years from FBI headquarters and field offices. There are dozens. We'll never know if they were significant—they don't exist anymore—but they sure look interesting to me.In 1994, for example, the Baltimore field office destroyed a file called "Arab Participation and Influence of Hate Literature in the United States." Also destroyed in the '90s or later: files on "race riots" from Birmingham, Ala.; a Dallas file on the John Birch Society; and a headquarters file on the political activities of actor Walter Brennan.

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When I moaned about this to Peterson, she acknowledged that the system wasn't perfect, but she said there was no other choice because of the volume. "It is a mammoth quantity of material," she said, "and to save it all is just impossible."An FBI spokesman told me thatthere are now 56 linear miles of files scattered in headquarters and field offices. That's approximately 300,000 cubic feet. I have no idea how much new material has been added since '81—the FBI wouldn't tell me—but there's obviously been a huge net loss since then.

Maybe the volume istoo much to manage, but I have to wonder if it might be time to put on the brakes and reassess. Evenif the Records Retention Plan team had scrutinized every page, I wouldn't trust their ability to decide now what might be significant to someone 100 years down the road. Also, the rate of handoff from FBI to NARA seems awfully slow. At this point, NARA has been sent onlyabout 13,100 cubic feet of records for permanent archiving. What do they have? Good luck figuring that out. There's no general index to the NARA holdings that lists this information using comprehensible subject headings like "John Birch Society" or "Judge Crater." You sort of have to know they have it before asking for it, which you find out by sending them or the FBI a FOIA request.

My final gripe: The volume of the FBI files isn't that mind-boggling. NARA has a much bigger load in the attic—29,019,647 cubic feet of material in its main D.C.-area facilities, regional hubs, and Presidential libraries—and NARA manages to preserve it without institutional meltdown. That's 60 times as much as the FBI files targeted for destruction. The half-million cubic feet of FBI documents from 1981 would have fit into about a dozen McMansions, packed floor to ceiling. The stuff was already cataloged and cross-referenced, so a simpler strategy would have been to keep it all together. The Feds have no shortage of storage space. Time published a report in 2006 on the nationwide glut of empty government buildings that require expensive upkeep, including Chicago's Old Main Post Office (2.5 million square feet of floor space) and the General Services Administration (376 "vacant and underused" buildings, courthouses, labs, and warehouses). To protect this priceless collection of FBI material, all it would have taken was shelves, guards, and about 20,000 smoke alarms.

Meanwhile, there's a new glimmer of hope on the John Poole front. I was able to get an interview with an FBI official who said the destroyed Poole file was listed under the classification that covers interstate transport of stolen vehicles. That's probably not myJohn Poole, but attempts to confirm it either way have met with foot-dragging. Separately, I sent a Poole request to the Jackson, Miss., field office and was told that material "which may pertain to your subject" has been released to the big National Archives storage facility in College Park, Md.

Butwhen I contacted College Park, I was surprised to find out that this material, fully freed up by the FBI, can be obtained only with a separate FOIA request to NARA. I'll do that next, and I'll let you know whether I get the information or just decide to lie down and go nuts—whichever comes first.

Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine.

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