On Using Archives and Freedom of Information Act for Anthropological Research

On Using Archives and Freedom of Information Act for Anthropological Research

At some point during the last quarter century I wandered away from doing ethnographic fieldwork and pursued archival and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) anthropological research. There were no clear reasons for the shift. I suppose that in hindsight this change of focus appears linked with being a new professor, with then young children who could not easily return to Middle East field research, while stumbling upon a broad research project I could undertake largely by mail. With time, I came to see FOIA as an intellectual movable feast, slowly bringing fragments of a rich secret archive to my home via the US postal service. I was already working on projects linked to the history of anthropology so this was an easy and natural shift or expansion of my work.

I had no idea what I was doing when I filed my first FOIA requests. I’d read an article in Rolling Stone describing the process around the time I read Sigmund Diamond’s impressive book, Compromised Campus, and was impressed by the extent of information he had released from the FBI on the Bureau’s activities on Harvard’s campus during the early Cold War, and I started wondering what I would find if I made similar requests on anthropologists. As I first made requests I quickly learned through failures, and altered my requests accordingly. Having been a struggling, frequently confused student during my early years, I was comfortable with learning by failure, and the long stretches of time between requests and files or rejections didn’t concern me because I was working on other things, like co-raising my kids and learning how to teach. Several scholars like Columbia University sociologist, Sigmund Diamond offered a lot of patient help as I refined requests, made appeals, and expanded the scope of my inquiries. My earliest FOIA requests sought FBI, CIA or Department of Defense records shedding light on anthropologists providing intelligence to governmental agencies.

Page from Margaret Mead’s FBI file.

I was surprised to find that many of the first large files I received related not to the sort of collaborative intelligence relationships I was seeking information on, but were instead records of governmental agencies conducting surveillance on activist anthropologists—most generally activists for racial equality—during the McCarthy period. These unexpected FBI documents led to my first book drawing on these materials, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004), with two other books comprising a Duke University Press trilogy tat used FOIA documents and archival materials to examine anthropologists’ contributions to the Second World War (Anthropological Intelligence, 2008) and the Cold War (Cold War Anthropology, 2016–which you can download for free as part of the Knowledge Unlatched project).

While my work mostly looks at anthropologists’ interactions with military and intelligence agencies, the potential range of anthropological research projects that could benefit from FOIA requests is limitless. Researchers can use FOIA to request correspondence, historical documents, reports, maps, datasets, and other materials held by US federal agencies relating to areas anthropologists’ research. Years after doing research in Yemen and Egypt, I read declassified embassy cables sending US reports on Embassy views of what was happening in country, views that appeared at odds with what I encountered out in the countryside.

The mechanics of requests are fairly simple, basically you write a letter to FOIA officers at a federal agency asking for specific records. Perhaps the easiest way to start filing a request is to use online resources like the FOIA Machine, which can guide you through the basic process and email requests to specified agencies. The main features of FOIA requests are: identifying specific records you seek (describing them as best you can—including with descriptions like “any and all records held on [person x]”), directing your request to a specific federal agency’s FOIA office, specifying that you are seeking a waiver for any associated fees (if this is academic or journalistic research, you can apply for a fee exemption) or reasonable copying fees; if you are applying for records pertaining to an individual, you must provide either proof that the individual is dead (I usually send an obituary), or a notarized letter from the individual granting permission for a request that would otherwise be protected by the Privacy Act—our rights to privacy die with us, so once dead anyone can access records otherwise protected under the Privacy Act.

For more information on the mechanics of FOIA requests, and the types of information available under FOIA anthropologists you can read this 2010 piece in Society for Applied Anthropology News on “Using the Freedom of Information Act as an Anthropological Tool” (pages 28-30). It’s also worth looking at the wide range of FOIA files the FBI has posted online, and you can browse some of their publicly release files at The Vault.

Many documents released under FOIA often have large sections missing—legally (or sometimes improperly) withheld under exemptions to FOIA, such as the Privacy Act, or agency rules protecting methods and sources of investigations, etc. These missing portions of documents, known as redactions, can complicate interpretations of documents, in ways that have similarities to scholars working with ancient scrolls or clay tablets with damaged passages—though most scrolls and tablets are damaged by stochastic forces, rather than by hands moving under essentially political guidance. You can also file in-house appeals and lawsuits in federal court to try and get withheld portions of files released.

During the last quarter century, I have collected my own archive of unorganized materials relating to anthropology and the National Security State—consisting of FOIA files, copies of materials from other archives, and a growing collection of primary materials that retiring anthropologists cleaning out their offices send my way. I used to track how many pages of FOIA materials I have, but stopped doing this book keeping over a decade ago, so I have no idea how many pages of files I now have, but its certainly well over 60,000 pages of documents.

As a guest blogger this month, I plan on selecting a few documents from the large collection of archival and FOIA documents that I have not gotten around to analyzing, and to share these documents and write up some brief analysis. I hope these brief entries can shed some light on what is available for FOIA researchers, and can show how these documents can add to disciplinary knowledge.

Professor of Anthropology, Saint Martin’s University, Lacey Washington. Cultural anthropologist using the Freedom of Information Act and archives to examine anthropologists interactions with military and intelligence agencies.

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