One of the best times to file a Freedom of Information request with the FBI is when someone dies; after that, any files that the agency holds on them can be requested. Asking for FBI files on the deceased is therefore pretty popular, with documents released on Steve Jobs, Malcolm X and even the Insane Clown Posse.
One activist is turning this back onto the FBI itself, by requesting files on nearly 7,000 dead FBI employees en masse, and releasing a script that allows anyone else to do the same.
“At the very least, it'll be like having an extensive ‘Who's Who in the FBI’ to consult, without worrying that anyone in there is still alive and might face retaliation for being in law enforcement,” Michael Best told Motherboard in an online chat. “For some folks, they'll probably show allegations of wrongdoing while others probably highlight some of the FBI's best and brightest.”
On Monday, Best will file FOIAs for FBI records and files relating to 6,912 employees named in the FBI's own “Dead List,” a list of people that the FBI understands to be deceased. A recent copy of the list, which includes special agents and section chiefs, was FOIA'd by MuckRock editor JPat Brown in January.
"The more people that request the files, the clearer it is that there's a widespread interest"
Best took the PDFs of the Dead List and converted them into a spreadsheet. He didn't carry over around two dozen of the entries, however, because the index didn't always list the full name. “I didn't want to give the FBI the excuse of having files that are difficult to ID,” he said.
Best has released a script he wrote so others can easily file the same requests, pressuring the FBI to publish the files in a speedy fashion. The script takes names from the spreadsheet and places them into an email template to request the appropriate records.
“The script will work with any FOIA office that accepts email submissions,” Best said.
When asked why he wanted more people to get involved, Best pointed to the Department of Justice's own stance on “frequently requested” records. “The more people that request the files, the clearer it is that there's a widespread interest and the harder it is for them [the FBI] to argue against putting all of those files onto their website,” he said.
This is the so-called “rule of three”; when three people ask for the same records, there is more of a chance of the agency responding quickly. Two other people have already told Best they will requests records as well, but getting this script into the public increases the chances of people following through.
This project follows previous FOIA activist efforts from Best; he recently crowd-funded over $10,000 to methodically print and digitally archive millions of pages of CIA documents.
“I think simple tools like that can be turned into 'weapons of mass transparency,’” he said. “The hard part has been identifying what records exist—or targeting data, to use the weapons analogy—but that's becoming easier as time goes on.”