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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Prying Open the FBI

The FBI is bracing itself for an expected surge of requests by citizens for copies of their FBI files. Under new amendments to the Freedom of Information Act passed last fall and effective this month, it will be easier, though not easy, for people to start prying loose some of the personal files kept on them at the massive FBI head in Washington.

With over 6,000,000 files on individuals and organizations in its vaults, it is understandable why the bureau’s public information unit has doubled its staff, according to information head James C. Farrington, to make every effort to comply with the new amendments.

Under the old law, the bureau had to only assert that all the files had to to kept secret because they were used for law enforcement purposes. The new amendments narrow the “law enforcement purposes” exemption to “investigatory records”—not whole files—compiled for civil or criminal Jaw enforcement purposes.

However, the FBI can now withhold records, or portions of records, only to the extent that it can show that disclosure would impair one or more legally protected interests. The-se interests include the shielding of secret investigatory techniques and confidential informers. Records can also be withheld if their disclosure would interfere with Enforcement proceedings. If the citizen doesn’t accept these reasons and takes the bureau to court, the burden of persuading the judge why the file or portions of it should be kept secret is supposed to be on the FBI.

There is more than the usual interest by the media and public in the files of the super secret FBI. Recent events involving the Watergate scandals and subsequent disclosures have revealed misuse of the FBI for political and other unlawful purposes.

Under the new amendments, if you suspect that the bureau has a file on your activities, you can make a formal request reasonably describing the records sought. Within 10 working – days, the bureau has to grant access to these materials charging you for actual search and copying costs) unless it asserts one of the exemptions to disclosure.

Recently Farrington assured a conference on freedom of information that the bureau Is working on the difficult judgmental guidelines so it can comply in good faith with the law, yet not impair rights of privacy or its legitimate law enforcement mission.

Some people in the audience reserved judgment. for they remembered past episodes of FBI secrecy under the old freedom of information law which bordered on the ridiculous. For example, the FBI refused to give a requester a copy of his own file on the ground that to do so would invade his personal privacy! On another occasion, one high Justice Department attorney had to make a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain a copy of the FBI’s internal telephone directory. The FBI, it should be noted, is under the Justice Department.

So if you think the FBI has materials on you that you would like to see, get to know more about the Freedom of Information Act. It applies to all federal departments and agencies.