Watching Big Brother Watching You

Is the government spying on you? The Freedom of Information Act is one good way to find out.



I often smile when somebody mentions Hillary Clinton, and think of the fan letter that she sent me after reading a piece of mine in The New York Times Magazine.

You see, while I was writing my last book, an unauthorized biography of Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer, a friend came to me wondering why he’d been contacted by the Secret Service, asking if he thought I was a threat to George W. Bush. They’d received a bogus report that I might harm that feckless fellow. Their investigation wrecked a wee bit of havoc on my psyche (and my wallet) before they cleared my name and closed their case. As I relayed in the Times, during their interrogation the agents asked me when was the last time I was at the White House. I responded, “In the early ’90s for a press conference on health care reform. You know, Hillary doesn’t photograph well. She looks far better in person.”

Shortly after the article appeared, a handwritten note arrived from Hillary on her Senate stationary: “Dear Mr. Maxwell: I vouched for you with the Secret Service. Anyone who thinks I look better in person is a true patriot—albeit myopic. Don’t let this experience deter you from speaking up and out. We must keep our senses of humor during these Orwellian times. All the Best, Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

These Orwellian times. George Orwell gained adjectival status through his futuristic novel 1984, detailing a land ruled by an authoritarian dictatorship named Big Brother—your pal in power. In Big-Brotherland war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Big Brother gathered a bunch of information about you—for your own good, of course—but you couldn’t see it. Orwell, alas, was British. We’re not.

Two hundred and thirty years ago we said goodbye to our English overseers and embarked on this experiment called America. We’d be self-governing. And we’d watch ourselves being governed. Very carefully. One hundred ninety years later, on July 4, 1966, President Johnson signed a bill into law that, with notable exceptions, furthered our government-watching abilities by guaranteeing our right to see what’s contained in the federal government’s files. Thus the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was born. Many states, including Montana, have their own versions of FOIA. Montana even includes the citizenry’s “right to know” what the government’s up to as equal to one’s “right to bear arms” in Article II of our Constitution. And it was during the great Montanan Mike Mansfield’s reign as Senate Majority Leader that Idaho Sen. Frank Church made public numerous FBI and CIA files, revealing such screwy machinations as a bungled CIA attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro by slipping him an exploding cigar. Seriously.

FOIA requests have also rooted out thick FBI files on such dangerously unpatriotic folks as Albert Einstein (1,427 pages) Martin Luther King. Jr (16,659 pages), Ernest Hemingway (160 pages), John Steinbeck (94 pages), and a 3,271-page dossier on that noted commie Eleanor Roosevelt, all of which can be viewed at (Surrealisticly, there’s even a 79-page file on George Orwell.)

Yet it was under the Clinton administration that then-Attorney General Janet Reno opened the floodgates for a far more open government. On Oct. 4, 1993, Reno rescinded a long-standing rule allowing federal agencies to withhold information if there was a “substantial legal basis for doing so” and replaced it with “a presumption of disclosure.” In other words, when in doubt, give it out. The National Archives then released tens of thousands of previously classified pages, including thousands concerning the two Kennedy assassinations. Other gems followed. This worked well for eight years. Then came Bush and John Ashcroft, the FOIA Antichrist.

You may recall that Ashcroft, who had famously been defeated for his bid to stay in the United States Senate by a man who died six weeks before the election, was the feckless fellow’s first attorney general, a proud author and executer of The PATRIOT Act, giving us warrantless no-tell searches and no-tell peeks at our library records, not to mention all that warrantless wiretapping. Ashcroft also issued his infamous Oct. 12, 2001 anti-FOIA memo reversing Reno’s directive and devolving our rights in Big Brother territory, a move that the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized effectively repealed FOIA. Ashcroft resigned in 2005, but his successor, Alberto Gonzales, and that feckless fellow in the Oval Office, are still trying to embalm FOIA.

According to Michael Massing in the December 2005 New York Review of Books, “The Bush Administration has restricted access to public documents as no other before it…The federal government classified a record 15.6 million new documents in fiscal year 2004, an increase of 81 percent over the year before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Spending on declassifying documents dropped to a new low…The restrictions have grown so tight that the normally quiescent American Society of Newspaper Editors issued a ‘call to arms’ to its members, urging them to ‘demand answers in print and in court’ to stop this ‘deeply disturbing’ trend.”

Deeply disturbing indeed. On March 27, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the “FBI keeps watch on Activists; Antiwar, other groups are monitored to curb violence, not because of ideology, agency says.” This nugget saw the light of day as a result of the FBI’s release of hundreds of pages of files in answer to a FOIA request by the American Civil Liberties Union (full disclosure: I’m a card-carrying member).

But the trend may be changing directions. On Aug. 17, Federal District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit looked at the Bush administration’s arguments for its widespread warrantless wiretapping policy and said, basically, “Cow crap.” Specifically, she ruled, “It was not the intent of the framers [of the constitution] to give the president unfettered control, particularly when his actions blatantly disregard the protections clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”

This land was made for you and me. You can fight back. And FOIA is a fine tool for doing so.

You can ask to review your own file, or any files you want to see, with notable exceptions for secret materials, trade secrets, confidential source names and material excluded for national security reasons. (See the form FOIA request sidebar.) If you’re refused, you can sue and have a judge read the file privately and decide if you can see it. And if the judge thinks the government had no valid reason to withhold your file, he or she can order the government to pay your attorney’s fees and court costs. I know. I’ve done it.

Since 1980, I’ve been a professional researcher and writer who has often wielded FOIA as a digging tool, and I’ve come up with some pretty interesting results.

But I had my most intense FOIA experience with the Secret Service. After I finished my book, I filed a FOIA request for my own file on April 1, 2002. I heard nothing back, though they’re required to respond within 20 days. I filed another request on May 1. Heard nothing. I filed another June 1. Heard nothing. My lawyer filed one on July 1. We heard nothing. Finally, on Oct. 15, my attorney filed suit in federal court. That got their attention. I eventually received about 80 percent of my file, some 130 pages(!). The vast majority were interoffice memos saying the same things, records of my Navy service and reports about some articles of mine they’d read. Chillingly, the Veteran’s Administration gave them my supposedly confidential medical records. The Secret Service spelled my name five different ways, listed three different birthdays, said I weighed 170, 220, or 190, and that I was either 5’ 9” or the correct 5’ 11”. They concluded that not only was I not a threat to our feckless president, but that I’ve “never behaved violently toward anyone,” and that I was “focused on and consumed by [my] book.” With that, they closed their case. My legal bill came to more than $8,000. The law firm wrote it off as pro bono. But we found what we were looking for.

My file’s treasure was a letter from an Air Force major to the Secret Service that started it all. It relayed how the major had been told by someone who’d been told by someone else that I’d been overheard in a bar saying that “I had friends in the CIA who will make sure Bush doesn’t enter the White House.” Hearsay, hearsay. That brilliant intelligence work launched an investigation, which included the FBI, the IRS, the Veteran’s Administration, our Navy, our Air Force, and numerous state and local agencies. This despite the fact that, as I proved to the Secret Service, I wasn’t even in D.C. the day I was supposedly overheard threatening that, well, person. As I told National Public Radio, I’ve concluded that it was an investigation in search of a crime, and I wouldn’t put it past someone associated with Microsoft from starting the rumor to discredit me.

Finally and surprisingly, the Secret Service—normally a very professional and efficient group—messed up. They made sure that the accusing major’s name and address were blacked out, but neglected to redact his home and work telephone numbers. A reverse directory search turned up his name and address. I’ve resisted asking for an investigation of this fine officer, but I’m tempted to send him a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Then the major can launch an investigation into why some Russian wrote his autobiography for him.

Fredric Alan Maxwell is the author of Bad Boy Ballmer: The Man Who Rules Microsoft. He can be reached at fredricmaxwell [at]

Was Jeannette Rankin a Commie?

Jeannette Rankin, Missoula’s most-famous resident, left many marks on Washington, D.C.: First woman elected to Congress; The only member to vote against World War I; The only member to vote against World War II. Given her long history as an active pacifist, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’d come out against the war in Vietnam, which she did, organizing the Jeannette Rankin Brigade to demonstrate against that war at the White House in January 1968. In doing so she added weight to another Jeannette Rankin mark in our nation’s capital—a 93-page FBI file.

For reasons not exactly clear, in 1981 the FBI declassified Rankin’s file and released it to an unknown party. Sometime later, the file was placed in the FBI Electronic Reading Room ( where anyone with an Internet connection can view it. I did.

As usual, much of the file has been redacted—blacked out—yet what remains tells the story of an FBI with its collective ear close to the ground. Rankin first came to the bureau’s attention in January 1941, when it was reported that several years before, she’d “sponsored a peace mobilization movement and closely associated with ROBERT F. HALL, head of the Communist Party in the South, and several other outstanding communists.” Outstanding communists? In any event, this was simply a background memo, with no action required. Then, in November 1942, the FBI received a call from Commander Rust in the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships, alerting them to a report he’d received about Rankin. It seems that someone had gone to her in an attempt to secure an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. (Why a dunderhead would think the only member of Congress to vote against the war would make for a useful recommendation is another question.) However, when Rankin asked what the applicant’s father did for a living, and was told he was a naval officer, the wannabe sailor reported that she replied, “He is one of those killers, too.” To his credit, S.K. McKee, the Special Agent involved, didn’t take any action, save recording the rumor and passing it on to Clive Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man and, as was reported in 1992, fellow cross-dresser.

The FBI’s Rankin file lay dormant for the next quarter century, until her well-known antiwar rage again raised its 86-year-old head. Rankin’s 1968 march on the White House came under close FBI scrutiny. One memo reveals that the Washington office asked to be kept abreast of the activities of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade “including the need for informant coverage of participating groups.” Apparently, the FBI infiltrated the group, though no violence was involved. Peace movements are very rarely violent, such acts being antithetical to such causes.

Still, as sometimes happens in such research, Rankin’s file reveals a famous connection, with Nixon himself. One of the agents kept informed of Rankin’s activities was Mark Felt—the man outed last year as The Washington Post’s “Deep Throat”—the newspaper’s deep-background source concerning Watergate. Felt became so disgusted at the misuse of the FBI during that investigation that he steered Bob Woodward and his cohort Carl Bernstein in their quest to get to the bottom of the matter, which led to the top of that dunghill and, of course, Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

How to file a FOIA request

According to the Department of Justice’s website,, there are a dozen departments in the Executive Branch of the federal government, including Defense, State, and Homeland Security—a good trivia question might ask you to name them all (hint, Sean Kelly’s, hint). In addition, there are at least 76 federal agencies to which one can file FOIA requests. These range from some so familiar that their acronym suffices—CIA, EPA, NASA, FCC—to the more obscure American Battle Monuments Commission and the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. Each department and agency has a designated FOIA officer, also listed on the DOJ website, to which requests should be sent. (A 2001 General Services Administration report notes that the most-FOIAed entities are the Department of Defense, Veteran’s Administration, and Social Security—generally FOIAed to request records of personal service or, in the case of Social Security, earnings statements.) However, when most people think of federal agencies that might have files on them, the Federal Bureau of Investigation comes to mind first.

As America’s premier domestic intelligence-gathering and police force, the FBI either has, or has the ability to quickly get, masses of information on anyone reading this (relax, not because you’re reading this). But as the 9/11 Commission detailed, outdated computer equipment and the huge quantities of data the agency gathers can slow them down, or send them in wrong directions. Rummaging through the public Kennedy Assassination files at the National Archives, I found a list of more than 100 possible JFK assassins suggested in letters from the public. Suspects included space aliens, Desi Arnez, Lucille Ball, and The Republican Party of Omaha, Nebraska. One stated, firmly, that JFK committed suicide. My favorite was a man who wrote in a scratchy hand that, “no matter what the people at [the bar] say, I did not kill Jack Kennedy.”

The FBI deals with this barrage constantly, and in doing so might have started a file on you, even if it never progressed far enough to talk with you in person. (My strong advice is that if you’re ever made aware that you are a subject of an FBI investigation, hire an attorney immediately—the U.S. Public Defender’s Service will provide one if you can’t afford it. If the FBI approaches you, inform them that you’d be more than willing to talk with them but you want to contact your attorney first. Do. One only need look as far as the way Monica Lewinsky was harassed to realize that they will use every tool in their belts, including fear and intimidation if need be, to discover whether a federal crime as been committed, or get evidence that one has.)

You, too, can get your FBI file

Want to find out what the FBI knows about you? It’s simple. Ask them.

Just fill in the blanks, clip, have your signature notarized, then send via certified or priority postal mail with delivery confirmation, private delivery service (UPS, Federal Express, etc.) or fax to 202-324-3752. In a month or so you should hear back.

Department of Homeland Security FOIAs

In 2001, Big Brother reorganized, pulling many separate agencies together under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. These include the Border Patrol, INS and Coast Guard. Each agency has its own FOIA office; their contact info is below:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
FOIA Public Liaison: Magda Ortiz
Phone: 202-307-5701
Fax: 202-272-8331

United States Coast Guard (USCG)
FOIA Public Liaison: Chief Yeoman Albert Craig
Phone: 202-475-3528
Fax: 202-475-3929

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
FOIA Public Liaison: Shari Suzuki, Acting
Phone: 202-572-8720
Fax: 202-572-8755

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
FOIA Public Liaison: Jeff Ovall
Phone: 202-646-3051
Fax: 202-646-3958

Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
FOIA Public Liaison: Marty Zimmerman-Pate
Phone: 912-267-3103
Fax: 912-267-3113

Office of General Counsel
FOIA Public Liaison: Erica Perel
Phone: 571-227-3813
Fax: 571-227-1125

U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement
FOIA Public Liaison: Gloria Marshall
Phone: 202-616-7489
Fax: 202-616-7612

Office of Inspector General
FOIA Public Liaison: William Holzerland
Phone: 202-254-4002
Fax: 202-254-4287

Assistant Secretary Office of Intelligence and Analysis
FOIA Public Liaison: Donna Sealing
Phone: 202-282-9077
Fax: 292-282-9069

Under Secretary for Management
FOIA Public Liaison: Vania Lockett
Phone: 571-227-3813
Fax: 571-227-4171

Director for Operations Coordination
FOIA Public Liaison: Donna Sealing
Phone: 202-282-9077
Fax: 292-282-9069

Under Secretary for Policy
FOIA Public Liaison: Vania Lockett
Phone: 571-227-3813
Fax: 571-227-1125

Under Secretary for Preparedness
FOIA Public Liaison: Donna Sealing
Phone: 202-282-9077
Fax: 202-282-9069

United States Secret Service (USSS)
FOIA Public Liaison: Latita Huff
Phone: 202-406-6370
Fax: 202-406-5154

Under Secretary for Science & Technology
FOIA Public Liaison: Cynthia Christian
Phone: 202-254-5535
Fax: 202-254-6178

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
FOIA Public Liaison: Anastazia Taylor
Phone: 1-866-FOIA-TSA or 571-227-2300
Fax: 571-227-1406

FOIA Public Liaison: Barbara Harrison
Phone: 202-298-5200
Fax: 202-298-5201

FOIA Requester Service Center

Should a FOIA requester wish additional information concerning the FOIA process, interpretation of the DHS FOIA regulations, a further understanding of the Freedom of Information Act, or status information about an existing FOIA request that is not available from the relevant FOIA Public Liaison, contact the DHS FOIA Public Liaison listed below:

DHS FOIA Requester Service Center Public Liaison
Catherine Papoi
Phone: 571-227-3813
Fax: 571-227-1125

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