How to Access FBI Records in the National Archives
While "Other Records" can be located through the finding aids at the National Archives, locating documentation of interest in the "Central Recordkeeping System" is more of a challenge.
With the exception of records that have been reviewed and released to the public, all access to FBI records is gained by requesting specific case files through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). If you do not know the file number(s) pertinent to your research, you will have to do a bit of work before filing a FOIA request with the National Archives. While some records have been legally transferred (accessioned) to the National Archives, NARA has not yet accessioned the index to those records. Before NARA staff can locate records responsive to your inquiry, you first must submit a FOIA request directly to the FBI requesting responsive records remaining in their custody or the file designations for records transferred to the National Archives.
If you have a good file citation from a book or article that cites records in the National Archives, you may visit the National Archives at College Park to review the records yourself. We recommend, however, that you contact the reference staff to ensure that the citation is correct and that the records are available for use.
If the FBI provides you with file designations for records transferred to the National Archives, you should then provide that information to NARA so that a search can be made. Please note that even if the records are in NARA custody, they may not be available for public use, and you may have to request access under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
You also should consult the FBI publication A Guide to Conducting Research in FBI Records on the Bureau's website.
Making Your FOIA Request to the FBI
Make your request for citations to the FBI as narrow as possible to facilitate a quicker and smoother review process. Specify whether you are looking for a Headquarters (HQ) or a Field Office (FO) case file.
If your focus is of a local nature, such as Black Panther Party activity in New Orleans, you will want New Orleans Field Office case files.
If your research and analysis is of a broader, national nature, such as Black Panther Party activity in general, you will want Headquarters case files.
Be mindful of your timeline and your information needs. Make your request as narrow as possible and get your FOIA request submitted as soon as possible.
Making Your FOIA Request to the National Archives
Freedom of Information Act requests for accessioned records should be sent to:
Special Access and FOIA Staff (RD-F)
8601 Adelphi Road, Room 5500
College Park, MD 20740
FAX (301) 837-1864
Once your request is received, it is assigned either to the complex queue or to the simple queue, depending on the amount of information you request to be reviewed. Requesting larger quantities of information will result in a longer wait for review, so be sure to focus the scope of your request.
NARA staff will contact you within 20 working days to confirm receipt of your request and delineate your search.
The Special Access and FOIA Staff perform a line-by-line review with the goal of releasing as much information as possible. However, information may be withdrawn for several reasons, including:
- personal privacy
- Social Security numbers
- potential witness identity never made public
- potential suspect identity never made public
- identity of people investigated for crimes that were never made public
- financial information
- medical information
- drug and/or alcohol use
- identity of law enforcement officers
- identity of confidential informants
- any information that deems an unwarranted invasion of privacy
- national security.
NARA's goal is to release as much information as legally possible. Documents can be released in two ways, either in full or in part, and some documents must be withheld in their entirety. Documents released in part, or with redactions, have been copied electronically and still-sensitive information has been digitally obliterated. Those documents withheld in full do not contain segregable information that can be released.
The FOIA allows requesters to file an administrative appeal with the agency for any information that was denied in response to a FOIA request. You may submit an appeal for the following reason(s):
- the refusal to release a record, either in whole or in part
- the determination that a record does not exist or cannot be found
- the determination that the record you sought was not subject to the FOIA
- the denial of a request for expedited processing
- the denial of a fee waiver request.