The Case of the Vanishing FBI File … That I Already Had

That’s probably a little confusing. Let me explain.

One of the essential ingredients in what I was able to discern about the hidden history of the Willie McGee case is a massive FBI file labeled, clearly enough, “WILLIE McGEE,” which I obtained back in 2006.

Among other things, the file contains rich details about FBI surveillance that occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer of 1950, when several pro-McGee protesters traveled to Jackson to testify at a clemency hearing for McGee, which was held in the state capitol building in late July. Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright, who clearly wanted to see McGee die in the electric chair, grudgingly agreed to hold the hearing at the behest of the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-affiliated northern group that paid for and managed McGee’s defense. In the aftermath, several CRC types—including two official spokesmen and a left-wing journalist—were beaten up by roving groups of Klan-affiliated thugs who were never identified. In the FBI report, their leaders are named, but the names are blacked out. It’s also pretty obvious from this file that local law enforcement officials conspired with the assailants, letting them know where and when to find the people they wanted to punch out.

When I say I “obtained” this file, I should clarify: I didn’t get it from the FBI. My copy came from a person who had obtained it several years earlier through a FOIA request. As a cover letter on the documents indicated, the file had first been requested way back in the late 1970s, by a historian who was researching the McGee case but didn’t end up writing about it.

Because so many details in the file were blacked out, I decided to re-request it from the FBI, as a first step toward asking that the Klan names I was interested in be un-blacked. I described what I had in detail, sent a copy of the cover letter and identifying numbers on the file, and waited. Several months after I made this request—the usual amount of time—the response came back: There were no FBI files about Willie McGee.

Since I already had the file, that response seemed especially strange. The file held a large amount of information about a case that involved Communism and civil rights. It was undoubtedly of historical significance, since the McGee case had become a news story all over the world, one that, at various times, captured the attention of Harry Truman, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, and Paul Robeson, among many others. Under the usual rules of what’s supposed to be preserved by the FBI, it should have still been around.

I filed an appeal, waited a long time, and eventually received a skinny sheaf of documents that didn’t overlap at all with what I already had, and were basically irrelevant. I still don’t know if the file that I have exists anymore, but, officially, it doesn’t seem to. If I hadn’t lucked into finding the file-finders who preceded me, I would have come up empty. To put it mildly, it wasn’t the sort of experience that inspires confidence in the process.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to back a bill (the “Faster FOIA Act of 2010”) that would create a commission to look into the issue of government delays in response to FOIA requests. I wish Congress would go much further and look deeply into how the entire confusing process works and doesn’t work, with a full investigation into which documents are being kept and which are being junked. I’m sure other people out there have strange stories like mine.

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3 responses to “The Case of the Vanishing FBI File … That I Already Had

  1. In this electronic age, when databasing such files should be so simple, this situation calls out for reform. As you note in your post about Ted Kennedy’s family getting the first look-see at his files, who gets what seems lacking in standards and procedures. I would think a simple rule of thumb would be: If a person is dead and the issues no longer salient, the files should be instantly available. I realize they have top process a lot of fresh stuff, but there are lots of pre-processed files lying around that should be gettable with a click of the mouse. It seems that we may stand at a crossroads: electronic file systems could either make this stuff more readily available or provide an excuse to bureaucrats to junk stuff in the transition from paper to electronic.

  2. I’m in the choir with you on the need for speedy answers to FOIA requests… I’m also in U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court case law precedent.

    What I don’t understand is why a link that brought me to this page refers talks to Attorney General Eric Holder probing “why the Obama Administration—which promised a dramatic increase in FOIA openness as one of its first official acts—appears to be using FOIA ‘exceptions’ to withhold records more often than previous administrations.”

    Your blog itself notes that the file you have was released on a professor’s FOIA request in the late 1970s. That means the Willie McGee files could have been purged during the post-Watergate file cleaning under then CIA director George H.W. Bush, during eight years of Reagan administration, four years of GHW Bush administration, eight years of Clinton administration or eight years of George W. Bush administration. Did you make the link to the Obama administration? If so, why — when your own evidence suggests so many other more likely culprits?

    • Hey: I linked to that story because it explains a news development that I referred to. Not as an inference that the O.A. itself dumped the McGee file. I have no idea whether that file is really “gone,” only that I was told it isn’t there. And if it is gone, I have no idea when it was dumped.

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