Homework: First FBI FOIA Letter

Write a FOIA letter to send the FBI, requesting the files they’ve gathered for a well-known deceased person,

Table of contents
Thursday, September 29 at 1:30 PM
5 Homework points
  • A ready-to-send email request to the FBI, under the Freedom of Information Act, for any files the FBI has on a deceased person.

  • The deceased person’s file, or a request for said file, must not be readily available on the Internet. In other words, do at least do a Google search for: “FBI file person’s name”. So, not Prince.

  • The person must have died more than 30 days ago. So, not Arnold Palmer.

  • Send a copy of the letter to me at dun@stanford.edu. You can send it to the FBI later.

  • You need to include a physical mailing address. If you don’t want to use your own, you can use:

    YOUR_NAME c/o Dan Nguyen
    450 SERRA MALL
    Building 120, Room 110
    STANFORD, CA 94305-2050

So that everyone can say they've made use of the federal public records law, we'll go with a well-known form: asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation for records on the deceased.

From the FBI's webpage, 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.

Instructions and requirements for the request can be found on the FBI's website. Here's a short list of articles and resources relating to FOIA'ing for FBI files

If you read through a few of the past requests on MuckRock (e.g. Johnny Cash, Hannah Arendt, Christopher Hitchens), you might think to yourself, all these letters look almost exactly alike…so I should just copy-and-paste one of them.

This is an attitude that I wholeheartedly encourage. You're not writing a term paper here, you're going through the motions of a well-worn law.

Example letters

Here's the request I wrote for Paul Newman.

Why? Because obviously:

The FBI had no responsive documents, but you can learn from my letter. Or basically copy it.

Example responses

Aaron Swartz, as requested by MuckRock on January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz FBI File

FOIA Exercise

Part of being effective at public records requests is just knowing that the law exists and that it has enforceable rules for officials to follow. The consequence of this is that much of a records request is just a formal process, and so using a template letter – by any reasonable assumption – should not have a negative impact when weighing the validity or legality of the request.

The upshot is to reflexively know that the hard part of a records request is not writing_ the 95% of the letter that is boilerplate. Save your energy for doing the research needed to request something useful. That's a useful enough lesson to learn.

Of course, don't expect all other types of records requests to be as cookie cutter as this one. Even so, this makes it even more important that you develop the ability to discern between the details that are boilerplate and the details that can send your request into a legal quagmire.