Last year, I filed my first FOIA request to the FBI, for their file on the late great Paul Newman. To make a long story short: the agency replied that they “were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA”.

You can see my request and the FBI’s response on DocumentCloud.

Why might we expect the FBI to have compiled reports about Paul Newman, as it has for so many other famous movie stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, and Groucho Marx?

For starters, Newman was number 19 on Nixon’s enemies list - between S. Harrison Dogole, president of a private detective agency who donated heavily to Nixon’s opponent, and Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist.

Newman had supported Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign and would continue to be an outspoken political activist for liberal causes, including lobbying Nixon to “install a Department of Peace in the cabinet”. Here is a 1969 clip of Newman speaking out against the Vietnam War: “I don’t know what war is all about, if it isn’t to create pain”:

Just being on Nixon’s list seems like it would generate FBI records for Newman; journalist Daniel Schorr (No. 17), reportedly faced weeks of FBI questioning after Nixon ordered the FBI to perform a “background” check.

Sometimes nothin’…may not be nothing?

The FBI’s response to me says there was nothing about Newman in its “main file”. I haven’t followed Ryan Shapiro’s advice on how to compel the FBI to be more thorough in its search:

  1. Request any “cross-referenced” records relevant to your inquiry. The agency will not include them in a typical FOIA request unless the user explicitly references them.
  2. Request a search of “ELSUR” (Electronic Surveillance) records. These include the names of all people and/or locations for which the agency sought a court order for electronic surveillance.

The FBI files are presumably spread out over various legacy systems. Charlton Heston’s file, for example, was apparently part of a system in which relevant files were destroyed in 2007.

Note: Didn’t realize until now that MuckRock also filed a FOIA for Newman back in 2012 (which is ironic because one of the requirements for an assignment I give to my public affairs class is to make sure to request something that isn’t already online…) They got the same response.

Interested in filing your own FOIA?

I created a short list of resources here. The most relevant ones are: