Getting federal law enforcement agencies to hand over documents through Freedom of Information requests is usually a losing battle.
With one noteworthy exception: FBI files on dead people.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has strict guidelines for releasing information, rules and laws that allow the agency to keep virtually all of its work under wraps. Officials almost never speak publicly about ongoing probes—the James Comey statements about Hillary Clinton’s emails notwithstanding—and agents are repeatedly warned not to talk about their work, even to their spouses and close family members.
Revealing anything to a reporter is a huge no-no.
So it’s not surprising that the agency itself would use every option under the law to deny requests from journalists, no matter how seemingly innocuous the information they seek may seem.
Yet when it comes to people who have passed away, the rules are different. The FBI routinely honors applications for the release of its files. You have to provide proof of the person’s death, which for the famous amounts to any story in a recognized media outlet, and file a FOIA request with the agency.
Here’s the official FBI policy on the matter and instructions on how to submit your request.
As a practical matter, you as a journalist should file a FOIA request immediately upon the death of any notable public person.
You might not be alone—veteran journalists like me are well aware of this tactic—particularly if the person in question had a high profile or had trouble with the law, but it can’t hurt. The process is straightforward, and you could end up getting a scoop with national news value.
Two recent deaths, both in the publishing world, come to mind: the passing of Hugh Hefner and Samuel “S.I.” Newhouse Jr. Both were powerful and at times controversial figures. It seems likely that the FBI would have kept track of them, and possibly developed interesting information about their professional or personal lives.
So stay on top of obituaries and have your request ready.
If you have any questions or trouble, don’t hesitate to contact us here at the Contently Foundation.