Homework: Send Your First FOIA Letters [2017-09-29]


A continuation and conclusion of the research on for FBI files. Just actually email the letters to the FBI.
2017-09-29 23:59

padjo-2017 homework fbi-foia-letters your_sunet_id

After emailing the FBI, just forward me dun@stanford.edu what you sent them in a separate email.


This assumes you’ve finished the research for: Homework: Researching Your First FBI FOIAs [2017-09-27]

Pretty much the same as this assignment from last year. Compose an email to the FBI for each of your subjects.

As an example (but not one you should ultimately copy) of what the FBI expects, you can check out their Sample FOIA Request Letter. At least note what email address you’re supposed to send it to.

Here is a FOIA – and the resulting email chain – that I sent out in 2015. It’s pretty close to what you want:


However, note that my initial request was rejected because it lacked “A current and complete mailing address”

You can include your own “snail mail” address. Or just use mine:

c/o Dan Nguyen 450 Serra Mall Building 120, Room 110 Stanford, CA 94305-2050 United States

But there’s more…

FOIA expert Ryan Shapiro has said that in regards to the FBI, a generic request may give them an excuse to not search related computer systems. Read this short MuckRock article that features a few of his tips:

You have to tell the FBI where to look

In fact, it’s worth reading his in-depth interview with MuckRock: Requester’s Voice, Ryan Shapiro.

The takeaway for this assignment is to include a few extra sentences (that my Paul Newman request omitted) of boilerplate specific to the FBI. Shapiro’s tips linked above are basically it, but if you want a recent example, compare my generic request for Hugh Hefner:


– to the request from a more experienced FOIA-er:



Using the FBI FOIA requests above, copy-paste/rewrite your own version specific to the subjects you’re interested in. If it feels like “Mad Libs: FBI Edition” – that’s because maybe that’s all that’s needed. Later on we’ll see examples from requesters who have had to diverge from this kind of format, but this is just our first FOIAs of the quarter. And the FBI has a relatively standard routine.

After emailing the FBI, send an email to me with copies of both letters.

Hints and Caveats

Here are the mistakes students generally make. They’re all pretty minor, which means there’s no reason why you have to repeat those mistakes:

  • Not referring to the actual public records law under which the request is made. The law for the FBI and other federal agencies is different than the one for the Palo Alto Unified school board.
  • Not including a snail-mail address.
  • Not including enough info about the deceased subject.
  • Sending it to the wrong email address.

Hefner, Now and Then

Speaking of the recently-passed “Pajama Man”, the FBI had already released a file on Hefner. Here’s a copy hosted on Archive.org:


It seems to be the file referred to by these two articles, published in 2000. The online news service that requested the file, ABPNews.com, seems to no longer exist:

  • The Guardian: Playboy uncovered FBI files show Hoover bought it for the articles

    The magazine, founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953, first came to the FBI’s attention in 1955 when a slighting reference to the FBI was made in a science-fiction story. But it was not until 1963, when Mr Hefner attacked Hoover’s anti-pornography position, that the FBI’s leader decided to take action, asking the ominous question of his agents: “What do we know of HM Hefner?” The head of the crime section, the late Milton Jones, was given the Playboy file and was required to read every word of the publication throughout the 1960s.

  • Globe and Mail: The FBI and the Playboy files

    The written synopses of Playboy issues ceased in early 1964, but the close monitoring of the publication and written summaries of specific articles, interviews and humour continued intermittently until Hoover’s death in 1972.

    Though the FBI began its Playboy fixation by looking for potshots at Hoover, the bureau’s priorities flipped over the years when agents took potshots of their own at the magazine’s “subversive” content, the files reveal.

    In the only document stamped “TOP SECRET,” Jones analyzed a 1964 interview the magazine did with controversial lawyer Melvin Belli. A flamboyant defender of celebrities and infamous characters like Jack Ruby, who killed alleged John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Belli was not gentle about the FBI and cursed Hoover’s men for perceived injustices.