OGIS Case Study #1 – “I am pretty sure the Government has a file on me”

Many people believe that federal law enforcement agencies have some kind of investigatory file on them. The truth is that very few people have been investigated by an agency such as the FBI, but that doesn’t stop many people from requesting their own records from federal law enforcement agencies.  (When an individual requests access to his or her own records, it is most often, but not always, considered a Privacy Act, or first-party, request. Although such requests fall outside of OGIS’s jurisdiction, we provide ombuds services to first-party requesters.)

In this case, our customer requested his FBI records. The response letter stated that a search of the agency’s Central Records System had found potentially responsive records, but that those records had been sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). When our customer contacted NARA, he was told that the responsive file was in the classified stacks, and he would need to make a FOIA request to have it reviewed and released.

At this point, our customer’s curiosity was seriously piqued. Not only did the FBI say it had a file responsive to his request, but NARA said that the file is classified! Naturally, the customer filed a FOIA request. He also sent a letter to OGIS asking for some clarification of the process and an explanation of why the files were at NARA.

An OGIS facilitator contacted NARA’s FOIA team to learn more. We learned that while there was an FBI file in the classified holdings that did contain our customer’s name (along with several hundred other names), that file was from the 1920’s and was related to an investigation of the White-Slave Traffic Act. NARA’s FOIA staff sent a letter to our customer explaining the subject matter of the file and expressing doubt that the file pertained to him. We sent our own letter to the customer reiterating the subject matter of the investigatory file and explaining to the customer how he could still request a copy of the file or review it in person if he wished to confirm its contents.

So what value did OGIS add? Though this case didn’t involve a complex mediation or the negotiation of different points of view, it is an example of the kind of customer service that OGIS provides. In reviewing the details of the case, it seems that the human touch was missing at a few key points along the way. Would it have made a difference if the original agency had told the customer the date and subject of the potentially responsive records (if they had that information)? Perhaps. Would it have saved our customer some time during this five-month process? Maybe so. At any rate, this case points to some of the potential pitfalls of working with technology, as a database is unable to reason that a file from the 1920’s might not pertain to someone born decades later.

We look forward to sharing more case studies with you in future blog posts. Let us know what you think.