FBI files: For whose eyes only? Privacy: The recent White House flap has stirred up old worries about the political misuse of information gathered by the government.

Sun Journal

July 05, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun research librarian Susan Waters contributed to this article.

Elvis Presley had one. So did Al Capone and Malcolm X, Albert Einstein and Abbie Hoffman. You may have one, too, tucked away in a government office somewhere. You could be the last to know.

They are FBI files, the sort of files mishandled by the Clinton administration. In recent weeks, there has been plenty of talk about the potential for the administration playing dirty tricks with the more than 600 files the White House obtained from the FBI -- most of them obtained improperly.

The files contain background and security clearance checks for prominent Republicans, including key members of the Bush administration's foreign policy team. White House officials say obtaining the files was a bureaucratic snafu. But some members of Congress say the White House's inability to explain clearly how and why the files were obtained amounts to a political cover-up.

According to FBI agents, government watchdog groups and legal scholars, not all FBI files are created equal. Some are opened for routine background checks and security clearances for government posts. Others are created during criminal investigations. And there are files the agency opens, citing national security needs.

All have one thing in common: They contain deeply personal details of a subject's life.

"This is not coffee-table reading," says David C. Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, an organization that helps people obtain their files through the Freedom of Information Act. "These documents are highly detailed and personal."

Nobody knows for sure just how many files are kept by the FBI. Not even the FBI.

"I have no idea how many files we have," says FBI spokeswoman Jennifer Spencer. "We've requested that information internally, and we haven't gotten an answer yet. I don't think it's something we can just come up with."

Groups that monitor the FBI and its files say the bureau has compiled records on nearly 80 million organizations and individuals -- living and long gone -- since the agency was founded in 1908. Each year, the FBI adds an estimated 800,000 names to its files.

The most routine type of FBI file is at the center of the White House flap.

When someone is named to a sensitive government post, the FBI conducts one of two types of investigations. One is a basic background check. The other is a security clearance check, used when more delicate posts are involved.

Agents are given this order: Determine whether the person is loyal, trustworthy and suitable for the job, and if there anything that could embarrass the government or compromise the candidate.

In the case of candidates for government jobs, the candidates themselves do part of the work by filling out a questionnaire that demands information dating back 15 years, including work and education histories, foreign travel, family relationships, mental and physical health backgrounds, and drug and alcohol use.

The FBI then assigns a case agent to run the investigation. Other agents are assigned to help. The agents verify everything in the questionnaire. They interview friends and enemies, neighbors and co-workers.

Agents report the results without any interpretation. The files become running narratives of the subject's life. Allegations of wrongdoing raised in the interviews are investigated by the agents.

At the same time, agents check records -- marriage and divorce, motor vehicles, criminal and civil, credit and corporate -- to verify information provided by the candidate and to develop more leads about the candidate's past.

The agents check internal FBI records to determine if the candidate was the target of a federal criminal probe or came in contact with any questionable characters. They run checks through databases kept by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other intel- ligence-gathering groups.

The file is then forwarded to the agency requesting the check, and its contents are supposed to stay confidential. But there are leaks. Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas were leaked from a FBI file that had been prepared for the Supreme Court nominee's Senate confirmation hearings.

"The FBI files can contain all kinds of private details that you probably wouldn't want to disclose to the government in the first place," says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties group that monitors the FBI.

"Those details are then memorialized in writing forever."

A second type of FBI file is created in the course of a criminal investigation.

Every time someone is investigated in connection with an FBI case, the agency opens a file. When someone is a witness in a case in which the FBI is involved, a file is opened. When someone is a victim of a crime related to an FBI case, a file is opened.

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