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”.
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:
- 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.
- 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:
- The FBI’s official guide on submitting FOIA (i.e. FOIPA) requests, including a template letter.
- MuckRock’s list of FOIAs to the FBI, which contain not only examples of how to write letters, but the responses and any intermediate messages – and how long all took. Here’s the MuckRock request for Washington Post editor Ben Bradley.