The 1966 Freedom of Information Act gives the American public access to FBI files on everything from businesses to the famous deceased, a privilege that is equally as beneficial as it is underused. The new website, "Get Grandpa’s FBI File", hopes to shatter this apathy toward requesting FBI files, a process better known in the political world as “FOIA’ing” a file, by serving as the middle man between Joe Schmo and the FBI. The site asks:
“Did Grandpa Joe run a gambling ring? Did Aunt Mary ever lead an antiwar protest? Did Cousin Gary smuggle booze during prohibition? Was Great-Uncle Fred a communist organizer?”
By filling in a few slots on this site, you can have a FOIA letter in a few seconds to send to the FBI and request their file. Not interested in the past misdeeds of your family, but obsessed with iconic figures from the past? Not only can you request and receive information about Hollywood stars, but you can also head over to the FBI’s Famous Person Listing and mull over the histories of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, among others.
If you’re worried about your privacy, "Get Grandpa’s FBI File" guarantees that the server does not save any information after you have printed the letter. When you go to the site, you will need to provide proof that the person in question is actually deceased, which is as simple as printing out a Wikipedia article or submitting a newspaper clipping indicating their date of death.
Both the letter-writing service and the first 100 pages of the FBI file are free. There can be charges as the site explains when you fill out its online form:
“the FBI is allowed by law to charge reasonable fees for Freedom of Information Act requests. The FBI gives you the first 100 pages of any request for free. Files longer than 100 pages are charged at ten cents per page. In practice, if the file is between 100 and 180 pages the FBI tends not to charge because it costs them more to bill you and collect the money from you than it does to just send you the copies and be done with it. But because of all this, your request letter must state some maximum amount you're willing to pay -- usually $30. If your request costs more than this, the FBI will contact you for permission before proceeding on your request. Remember, do not send money with your request: the FBI will bill you if necessary.”
Anyone who files a FOIA request may have a long wait before they receive any information. Once FBI headquarters receives the letter, the letter must make its way to the proper department. Then, that department has 20 business days to respond with a letter, stating whether or not they will send the file. After that letter, they will send the information to you “in a reasonable time afterward,” according to the official FOIA website. And another thing - your request may take a backseat to more pressing file requests from people who will disseminate the information to the public, say during a political scandal, for example.
Although these hurdles might discourage someone from requesting files, the information usually arrives within six weeks, and any person can take legal action against the FBI if they do not respond to their request in a timely matter. And now that "Get Grandpa’s FBI File" writes the letter for you, there really is no reason to ignore your long-burning desire to get the dirt on your dead relatives, your favorite celebrity from the past, or controversial icons with a legacy. Just go to the site, fill in some info, and click “Print letters!”
-- Rachel Banks