FOIAing for FBI Files

Resources and articles about how to request files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation via FOIA.

Table of contents

In 2005, the FBI released a trove of files for celebrities and public figures after the Associated Press made a request for "every FBI 'High Visibility Memorandum' filed between 1974 and 2005":

Celebrities and criminals, rock stars and mob stars, athletes and artists – scores of high-profile Americans have their very own FBI file, a bold-faced universe rife with dirt and scandal. It's no surprise that gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell turn up as sources.

The files chronicle mass marketer Walt Disney and mass murderer Ted Bundy, comic genius Groucho Marx and cosmic genius Albert Einstein. There are reports of canoodling (although the FBI prefers "extramarital affairs"), heavy boozing, mob ties, drug use and the rest of the requisite dish.

The sheer volume became clear in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press for every FBI "High Visibility Memorandum" filed between 1974 and 2005, allowing a lengthy traipse through the lives of celebrities from A (Louis Armstrong) to Kaye (Danny) to Z (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). The AP's request produced more than 500 redacted memos totaling nearly 1,500 pages – a stack of documents six inches high.

Asking for the FBI files on any organization or dead person is a right that any ordinary, non-felon citizen has. The FBI even has a webpage with information and letter templates, Requesting FBI Records:

The Freedom of Information Act allows any person – except fugitives, federal agencies, and foreign intelligence agencies – to request information about organizations, businesses, investigations, historical events, incidents, groups, or deceased persons.

FOIAing the artist formerly known as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince"

In general with any public records request, you'll want to be sure to get the details right. This helps the records department perform an accurate search. It also reduces the number of reasons that they have nothing for you, because they may not tell you if the lack of records is because they couldn't find someone by that exact name, or, that they know who you really want but don't really feel like returning those records to you.

In the case of celebrities, there seems to be some leeway. A requester at MuckRock asked for "Leslie Nielson's" file and the FBI responded with Leslie Nielsen's records – it helped that someone already requested the records, apparently:


When someone at MuckRock requested the records for the artist Prince, they weren't taking any chances:

A copy of the FBI's files on the musical artist Prince Rogers Nelson.

He was also known as Prince, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Jamie Starr, Christopher, Alexander Nevermind, The Purple One, Joey Coco, an unpronounceable symbol available for review at this URL: , O(+> and TAFKAP.

It's worth noting in the FBI response that a FOIPA Request Number is given:



This number can be used to query the FBI's online status database. Here's the status of MuckRock's request for Prince as of late 2016; apparently, many other people have made this request: