How to get the records
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is one of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies — and one of the most perplexing for genealogists when it comes to getting records.
Its history begins in 1908 after a Civil Service statute put an end to the prior practice of the Justice Department borrowing investigators from other agencies. At that point, the Attorney General — Charles J. Bonaparte — set up his own team of investigators that his successor called the Bureau of Investigation.1
The responsibilities of the fledgling agency grew over time: more interstate crime cases including interstate prostitution, motor vehicle theft, interstate kidnapping, even espionage during World War I came under its investigative eye. In 1935, it was officially renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation.2
And with 110 years worth of work under its belt, it’s pretty clear to researchers — The Legal Genealogist among them — that there must be some real gems in the FBI records… if we can just figure out how to get them.
And there are essentially three places to look.
For archival records, we need to look in Record Group 65 of the National Archives, the Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). There’s a description of the record group and its contents online as part of the web version of the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. That particular record group’s description can be found here.
Now looking at that, it suggests that records from 1896-1996 can be found at the National Archives. And that’s both technically true — and terribly misleading. The fact is that the vast majority of records held by the National Archives only go up to the 1920s or so.
General Investigative Records held by the National Archives go from 1908-1922. The Index to Investigative Case Files, also 1908-1922. Investigative Records Relating to German Aliens and Political Radicals, 1915-1920. Investigative Records Transferred from the Department of Justice, 1917-1922.
There are a few types of records that are more recent, for example cases classified as civil rights cases; cases classified as domestic security cases; and cases classified as Hatch Act cases (cases involving investigations of federal employees for engaging in prohibited political activities).
But the fact that these more recent files are at the National Archives doesn’t mean they’re open to anyone. Many of the records series and sub-series carry access restrictions, and most are labeled as “Fully Restricted,” meaning these records must be screened for issues relating to personal privacy, law enforcement, and national security information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. §552(b), before any information can be released. Some also have to be screened under other statutes like the federal Wiretap Statute, 18 U.S.C. §2510 et seq.
These records are also hard to get into, because many of them haven’t been accessioned (added to the catalog) so you’re generally going to need a file number and you often can only get that from the FBI itself. So before you go to the Archives, review the page on Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (RG 65) under the Law Enforcement and Investigations section of the Research Our Records menu.
Still, it’s the place to start for records that have been turned over to the National Archives, and there’s a good explanation of what’s at the National Archives and what isn’t in a publication by the FBI itself called A Guide to Conducting Research in FBI Records.3
For non-archival records, meaning anything still held by the FBI itself, a request has to be made directly to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And the FBI itself has a whole page with information about Requesting FBI Records. It’s a complicated process, there are a lot of things the FOIA law allows the FBI to refuse to provide, and it takes time. Still, it’s often the only way to get the file on, say, an ancestor you think might have been investigated by the FBI during World War I or World War II.
As noted above, you’re probably going to have to use this system even to get the file number for a file that’s been turned over to the National Archives, so read the FBI FOIA page fully and carefully.
But before you send off your request to the FBI, do one thing more: look at the very top of that FOIA page. It has a link to something else, something called the FBI Vault — and that’s where you just might get lucky.
Over the years, when the FBI has gotten a FOIA request for records and has agreed to release the information, it has made a decision whether the records have some public interest that might lead someone else to request them again. Those records — now up to some 7,000 files — it has digitized and put online at the FBI Vault.
These files cover topics ranging from gangs and gangsters to civil rights to fugitives to World War II cases. They can be searched by topic or, at least in some cases, by key words or phrases. The search mechanism is clunky, and often just identifies a lengthy file where a word or phrase or name appears without drilling down to where in the file it appears — but it’s sure better than not getting the records online at all.
So… start at the National Archives and check Record Group 65. If the record or record type you want isn’t there or hasn’t been fully accessioned (meaning you need a file number to get the file from the Archives), go on to the FBI website — and start at the FBI Vault. If there’s nothing there, then make a FOIA request to the FBI itself.
And be prepared to wait. Records requests can take a lot of time.