The Department of Forgetting
How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records.
I got bad news from the FBI a few months ago. A file I'd requested under the Freedom of Information Act wasn't going to be available. Ever.
And not for one of the reasons I already knew to expect—that the material was classified, that the file concerned a living person, or that no file existed to begin with. Judging by the FBI's final response letter, there might have been a file on my subject, a long-deceased Mississippi lawyer name John R. Poole. But if there was, it got shredded.
"Records which may be responsive to your … request were destroyed on July 01, 1995," the letter said. "The FBI Records Retention Plan and Disposition Schedules have been approved by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and are monitored by knowledgeable representatives of the NARA."
NARA is the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that keeps track of everything from the Declaration of Independence to Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle. The letter conjured up images of my file getting scrutinized by furrow-browed NARA scholars who decided that, alas, John R. Poole was not of sufficient historical interest to keep around.
At the time, I was new to the weird science of FOIA requesting, so I didn't know the FBI was allowed to destroy files routinely. Dismayed, I looked into how the Records Retention Plan works, with help from several generous FOIA experts. What they described sounded more like a Records Destruction Plan, since it allows the FBI to discard roughly 80 percent of its files at any given time. The FBI would have you believe the plan is a best-of-all-possible-worlds compromise that preserves the essential and discards only the unworthy. Don't buy it. Though the NARA experts who helped create the plan tried to come up with a fair, workable system, the bottom line is that the FBI gets to trash mountains of historical source material without adequateoversight. And there is nothing the public—which owns the records, after all—can do to stop it.
Like many people who make FOIA requests, I'm probably hypersensitive to the potential loss of any one file among millions, but that's how it is when you're researching something: The people on your punch list become all-important. I'm writing a book about the 1951 execution of Willie McGee, an African-American man from Laurel, Miss., who got the death penalty in 1945 for allegedly raping a white housewife from the same town. For the past two years, I've been working to find out anything I can about McGee, Poole, and dozens of other people involved in the case.
McGee's legal saga was little-noticed at first, but it became so famous that, toward the end, President Harry Truman was getting harangued by people from all over the world who wanted him to grant McGee a pardon—some because they thought he was innocent, some because they thought the sentence was too harsh. Given the time, place, and nature of the offense, the outcome of McGee's first trial in December 1945 was almost pre-ordained. It lasted a day, and an all-white jury found him guilty after deliberating for 2½ minutes.
During appeals and two retrials over the next five years, the Civil Rights Congress, a Communist-linked activist group based in New York, threw tremendous energy into making the case a cause. McGee's appeals lawyer was a young, energetic Bella Abzug. Among the prominent figures who spoke out were Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker.
Alex Heard is the editorial director ofOutsidemagazine.
Photograph of envelope by Photodisc/Getty Images.