"Anthropological Research and the Freedom of Information Act" Cultural Anthropology Methods Vol. 9, Issue 1, February 1997, pages 12-15.

David H. Price
St. Martin's College
Lacey, WA 98503

Cold War Hot Links


Many anthropologists are accustomed to using archival materials as a primary source of information, as well as to supplement original data gathered through fieldwork. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a largely untapped resource for anthropologists and other social scientists. This article outlines some of the ways that social scientists, including anthropologists, have made use of the FOIA in their research and provides instructions on how to file FOIA requests.

Examples of Use

Perhaps the best-known use of the FOIA is sociologist-historian Sigmund Diamond's research on how the FBI, CIA and State Department co-opted some social scientists at Harvard, Columbia and Yale in the 1940s and 50s (Diamond 1992). Diamond's work brought to light unsettling documents which indicate that some anthropologists worked secretly with members of the intelligence community during the early years of the Cold War.

John Kalb used the FOIA to uncover documents from the 1970s relating to the National Science Foundation's peer-review of his request for funding of his field research on early hominids in Ethiopia (see Bell, 1992, for an account of Kalb's successful lawsuit against the NSF for their mishandling of this grant; see also Wendorf 1993). Anthropologist Susan Krook (1993) has used the FOIA to examined portions of the FBI's files held on Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Historian of anthropology William Peace used the FOIA to investigate FBI and State Department records relating to Leslie White and V. Gordon Childe (1993 & 1995).

Christopher Simpson's book, The Science of Coercion (1992) relied on FOIA materials to document the role of American anthropologists in the development of propaganda models and communications research during the second world war. Michael Keen (1992, 1993) used the FOIA to document Talcott Parsons' clashes with McCarthyism and America's National Security State. Benjamin Harris (1980) used the FOIA to uncover documents relating to the FBI's surveillance of members of the American Psychological Association and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

In my own research, I have used FOIA to request hundreds of files held by the CIA, FBI, NSA, OSS, Department of State and other agencies relating to anthropologists (and organizations of anthropologists) and the Cold War (Price 1995, in press). I am examining files held on deceased anthropologists and anthropological organizations to shed light on some basic questions concerning some overt, covert, witting and unwitting relationships between anthropologists and military and intelligence agencies from World War II until the present.

I have also helped many anthropologists request records held on them by various American intelligence agencies. Any anthropologist who believes they may have had contact with members of the intelligence community while conducting fieldwork might wish to to make FOIA requests of CIA, FBI and the Embassy and Consulate (via the State Department) of the nation where the incident occurred.

Opportunities for Research Using the FOIA

Many anthropological research topics could benefit from access to previously confidential government documents is impressive. Anthropologists studying Native American groups, for example, should consider using the FOIA to access records held by the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and, in some instance, the FBI. instances. (See Cohen, 1981, for an anthropological view of the American Indian Movement and comments on possible FBI infiltrations of the movement.) Anthropologists who study the history of anthropology can use the FOIA to access relevant federal employee records, grant records, BIA documents -- or records relating to military service or intelligence work.

Anthropologists interested in documenting relationships of dependency between the developed and the underdeveloped world can access a wealth of records relating to the role of governmental agencies in establishing and maintaining such unequal relationships. For example, I have studied the CIA's role in the development of modernization theory, and connections between some anthropologists and some CIA advisors (Price 1997).

The FOIA can be used by anthropologists conducting research in areas of the world where American military and intelligence agencies have clashed with foreign indigenous groups. The FOIA can also help anthropologists gain access to previously unreleased diplomatic documents relating to regions where they've done foreign fieldwork. In many regions of the world, the records left by minor diplomatic outposts have turned out to be among the few historical source materials for ethnohistorical reconstructions (e.g. Abd al-fatah 1984). In short, any researcher investigating groups or individuals who have had contact with U.S. government agencies can benefit from using the FOIA to access records held by all branches of the federal government.


The Freedom of Information Act dates from 1966. It was enacted so that individuals might access records held by federal governmental agencies (U.S. Congress 1975). In the mid-1970s, the FOIA was strengthened in the post-Watergate movement for government reform. Revelations of covert domestic and foreign programs - ranging from the FBI's COINTELPRO to the CIA's attempts to assassinate the leaders of some countries - created a climate in which governmental agencies could no longer hide behind standard claims of privilege.

There was a weakening of the FOIA during the Reagan presidency. It culminated in the CIA's now routine practice of denying most FOIA requests on the grounds that releasing documents might endanger national security. (Generally, requests made in the mid-1970s brought the release of more unaltered records than have more recent requests.) Despite some setbacks it is still possible to use the FOIA to gain access to a variety of rather remarkable records.

Currently, anyone can use to FOIA to request files pertaining to themselves from any federal agency, but they can not request files pertaining to any other living individual. The Privacy Act protects living individuals from the inquiries of others. The dead, however, do not have these same privacy rights. Sigmund Diamond has successfully argued that, if this were not the case, the writing of history would cease. Individuals can also request files held by any federal agency pertaining to any group or organization.

The FOIA is not a practical tool for researchers who are working on short deadlines. Despite clear mandates requiring CIA and other agencies to respond to requests in as little as ten days, the FBI and CIA (using the appeals process) currently take years to comply with even the simplest FOIA requests. (The FBI, for example, is now taking 3-5 years to fulfill FOIA requests.) The treasures that FOIA requests can unearth, however, make it an invaluable tool for devoted researchers.

Unfortunately, documents are being destroyed faster than they can be released under the FOIA. According to James Hastings, Director of Records, Appraisal, and Disposition Division at the National Archives, currently, "each agency has primary responsibility for determining how long its records need be retained for legal, fiscal and administrative purposes" (interview conducted 1/18/95). Once an agency determines it no longer has a need for certain records, it passes the records on to the National Archives, which determines whether records should be kept or destroyed.

A listing of records to be destroyed is supposed to be made available in the Federal Register, but there has been resistance to attempts to get the National Archives and Records Administration to alert concerned individuals or anthropological organizations before pertinent records are destroyed. This has been a problem in my own research. For example, the CIA destroyed all records relating to George P. Murdock, as well as most of a file recording observations by CIA operatives of an annual meeting (in either the late 1960s or early 1970s) of the American Anthropological Association (See Price 1995:30). This issue deserves the attention of anthropologists and groups devoted to the preservation of anthropological records.

Making a FOIA Request

On the face of it, making a FOIA request is a straight forward process. Typically, all that is needed is a letter addressed to the FOIA officer at the government agency of interest, specifying exactly what records are sought (see Adler 1987 for step-by-step instructions on how to write these letters).

On one level, all FOIA requests are about the same, but, as I said earlier, the responses vary greatly from agency to agency. The text of the FOIA requires all Federal agencies to release documents, but also allows for exceptions. In addition to citing potential harm to national security, military and defense agencies often claim exemptions for FOIA materials under the "methods of intelligence gathering" clauses. That is, under the FOIA, information that might reveal methods of intelligence collection are exempt from disclosure.

In April of 1995, President Clinton signed executive order 12958 which instructed all federal agencies to release largely-uncensored records older than 25 years before the date of the request. EO 12958 could be a watershed for FOIA researchers who currently rely on lengthy the appeal process to access unaltered records. So far, in practice, many governmental agencies have been slow to implement EO 12958. The CIA, however, in response to EO 12958, created a new division known as the "CIA Declassification Factory." This division, according to Richard Warshaw (1996) will oversee "over 60 million pages of classified records subject to automatic declassification [under 12958] a stack [of paper] as high as 50 Washington Monuments." Anthropologists are advised to get in on what most insiders see as a treasure of documents.

Most agencies request a nominal per-page photocopying fee for the materials they release (e.g. the FBI charges nothing for the first 100 pages of records; after that requesters are charged 10 cents per page). Some agencies, however, charge fees for basic searches. The CIA, for example, currently charges over $100 for simple FOIA searches, while the NSA generally charges over $500 for a basic search. These fees apply regardless of whether records are located, or can be deemed releasable once found. For this reason it is usually impossible for scholars to conduct FOIA research without fee waivers.

It is difficult to interpret the CIA and NSA's practice of charging these processing fees as anything other than an attempt to discourage inquiries into these most secret branch of the government. On the other hand, the CIA can, and often does, waive these fees for journalists and for individuals who can provide evidence that they are legitimate scholars who will use materials released under the FOIA for scholarly purposes. Often all that is needed to be classified as a legitimate scholar is a letter from one's dean or department chair supporting claims that documents sought under the FOIA are being used for scholarly activities. It can also be useful to get a letter of support from your member of Congress supporting you in your efforts to waive any fees.

FOIA Results

FOIA requests do not automatically lead to the release of all requested documents. The FBI and CIA often release files with significant portions blackened out by the feltpens of government censors. On an initial request it is not uncommon for requesters to be sent only a few pages of a thousand-page file. The National Security Agency apparently attempts to block most FOIA requests it receives.

Out of the hundreds of FOIA requests I have made, I've received three categories of response from the CIA: (1) the eventual release of requested records; (2) statements that the sought records do not exist; (3) statements that neither confirm nor deny the existence of sought records, but reject a specific request on the grounds that it might reveal a current or past covert relationship.

This third category of response requires a short note of caution and explanation. Simply put, such a response should not impugn the reputation of the FOIA subject in question. Though this type of response is unusual, I have received it when asking for records held on a few individual anthropologists as well as some departments of anthropology and anthropological research institutes. These responses in and of themselves do not suggest any collusion between the subject of inquiry and the CIA. These responses could refer to a variety of relationships including: relationships where the FOIA subject covertly working for the CIA; relationships where the FOIA subject was actually the target of a secret CIA investigation; or relationships where unknown CIA employees were patrons of educational or research institutions. Without seeing the actual CIA records it is usually impossible to know the true meaning of this third category of response.

One interesting difference between each agency's FOIA processing procedures involves variations in how they retain records of what has previously been released under FOIA. Some agencies (such as CIA and NSA) retain exact copies of documents that have been vetted and released. Thus, when another request for these documents is made, the new requester can often quickly be sent a copy of these previously released documents - in their usually-already-censored state, of course. Other agencies, such as the FBI, tend not to keep such records, so in most cases each re-request is treated as a new search. From the perspective of the requester, this duplication of process slows down their requests.

On the other hand, it leads agencies to release information inconsistently. This means that new requests for the same information may turn up documents that were not released previously. For example, the FBI estimated to Susan Krook (1993) that Margaret Mead's FBI file was 550 pages in length and released about half of these to Krook. In response to my own FOIA request, the FBI estimated the length of the file at 992 pages. This discrepancy may be due to differences in the specific wording of each FOIA request -- asking for "any and all records pertaining" to a subject can produce different results than asking for specific records.

It is common to receive pages of mostly-blacked-out records under FOIA requests. Under current guidelines, agencies are required to inform requesters under what category (e.g privacy, national security etc.) each exemption falls, but this does little to inform the requester about what has been rendered illegible. Some help may come from Theoharis (1994) and Buitrago (1981) who offer guides to the "margin codes" that may be handwritten in the margins of FBI documents. Researchers should, however, routinely file appeals for information that has been withheld under claims of potential harm to national security. Claims of privacy can also be appealed if the events covered in the file transpired decades ago. Because lawyers are allowed to charge governmental agencies for legal fees incurred on successful appeals, it is not difficult to find pro bono legal assistance when mounting FOIA appeals.

Despite delays and blacked-out pages of records, the FOIA can be an invaluable tool for anthropologists. The National Security Archives, an independent research institute at George Washington University, provides a repository for documents recovered through FOIA research. When they have finished using documents acquired under the FOIA, scholars should consider depositing those documents with the that organization.

References Cited

Abd al-fatah hasan abu ali 1984. maktaarat men wathaq tahreekh Oman al-hadeeth. Riyadh: dar al-marekh.

Adler, Allan 1987. Using the Freedom of Information Act: A Step By Step Guide. New York: ACLU Foundation.

Bell, Robert 1992. Impure Science: Fraud, Compromise, and Political Influence in Scientific Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Buitrago, Ann Mari 1981. Are you now or have you ever been in the FBI files? New York: Grove Press.

Cohen, Fay G. 1981. "The American Indian Movement and the Anthropologist: Issues and Implications of Consent" In M. Rynkiewich & H. Spradley eds., Ethics and Anthropology: Dilemmas in Fieldwork. Pp 81-94, Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger.

Diamond, Sigmund 1992. Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955. New York: Oxford University Press

Diamond, Sigmund 1993. "Compromising American Studies Programs and Survey Research" International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 6(3):409-415.

Harris, Benjamin 1980. "The FBI files on the APA and SPSSI" American Psychologist 35:1141-1144.

Keen, Michael 1992. "The Freedom of Information Act and Sociological Research" The American Sociologist 23(2):43-51.

Keen, Michael 1993. "No One Above Suspicion: Talcott Parsons Under Surveillance" The American Sociologist 24(3):37-54.

Krook, Susan 1989. "Franz Boas (a.k.a. Boaz) and the F. B. I. "History of Anthropology Newsletter Vol. XVI No. 2:4-11.

Krook, Susan 1993. "An Analysis of Franz Boas' Achievements and Work Emphasis During the Last Five Years of His Life, Based on Documentation and Interpretation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation File Maintained on him from 1936 to 1950" Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Colorado.

NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) 1992. Records Management Handbook: Disposition of Federal Records. Washington, D.C.: NARA.

Peace, William 1993. "Leslie White and Evolutionary Theory" Dialectical Anthropology 18:123-151.

Peace, William 1995. "Vere Gordon Childe and the Cold War" In P. Gathercole et al. Eds., Childe and Australia pp. 135-151. St. Lucia: Univ. of Queensland Press.

Price, David 1995. "Cold War Anthropology: Collaborators and Victims of the National Security State" Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 1995, Washington, D.C.

Price, David n.d. [1997]. "Cold War Funding and the Development of American Anthropology" In Press.

Simpson, Christopher 1994. Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960. New York: Oxford University Press.

U.S. Congress 1975. "The Freedom of Information Act and Amendments of 1974" Washington, D.C.: US Gvt. Printing Office.

Theoharis, Athan G. 1994. The FBI: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide. New York: Garland.

Warshaw, Richard 1996. "CIA Plans for Automatic Declassification" Presentation give at session of the George Washington University Symposium on EO 12958.

Wendorf, Fred 1993. "Book Review of Impure Science" American Journal of Physical Anthropology 92:401-409.