Gaining Access to the Citadel

Locating a particular document on one of the FBI’s three CDs of documents relating to Peoples Temple and Jonestown is a challenge (see related story). But it may be child’s play compared to getting the same document from FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., if my experience in November 2005 is any indication.

Access to the FBI “public” reading room of documents released under FOIA was already difficult, even before 9/11. Long gone are the days when you could appear at the door of the reading room and ask the agent on duty to provide you with documents on the spot. In the intervening years, layers of security and requirements for advance notice have been added, and – when combined with an agency already predisposed towards secrecy, plus usual bureaucratic snafus – even adherence to rules to gain entry to the room does not guarantee success.

For example: the FBI now requires 48 hours’ notice before a visit to the FOIA reading room. In early November, I called the FBI Reading Room twice in order to set up an appointment for a visit. I got voice mail both times I called. I left a message with my phone number and my request on both occasions. No one returned my call. When I went to the agency a few days after my second call, the security guards would not let me enter because I did not have an appointment. They did let me call the reading room, where I again got a voice mail. Eventually the FBI switchboard directed me to the head of the reading room… where I got voice mail. Hours later, I did make contact, and was told that my name would be put on the roster for the next two days. When I returned to the FBI, though, I was again denied entrance. Fortunately one of the guards figured out that my name was at the Escort Desk, not the Security Entrance, and I was finally admitted.

I was met by an escort and “minder” for my time in the Reading Room. She had pulled dozens of files from the shelves, but none pertaining to my request. She had no prior knowledge of my request. I reviewed the files she pulled and found several that were somewhat useful for a project I was working on, so I reviewed those.

When I asked her for the files on the “PT Journal,” the FBI’s designation for the Edith Roller Journal, she said she wouldn’t know how to find those. She informed me that the FBI “does not have any inventory to its Jonestown files.” She began by saying that nothing was on computer, but when I pressed her, she said there was no listing of what the FBI had on Peoples Temple. She could not locate any photographs without an identification number; but (Catch-22), no identification numbers are listed in an inventory.

Fortunately, I did have an inventory of the FBI’s CDs prepared by Don Beck, so I was able to supply her with the numbers of the PT Journal, though not of the photographs (which are somewhat buried within the CDs). Using the CD numbers for the PT Journal, my escort was able to search the shelves… but the files were not there. Apparently someone had removed them. She made a phone call and left a message with the person she thought had the files. (Perhaps someone had pulled these files in preparation for my visit; in any event, they were unavailable.)

There was in fact one file set aside for me which, coincidentally, did have some photocopies of photographs in it. However, some identifications were provided without accompanying photos. When I commented on the lack of photographs, photocopies, and bad copies of texts the escort replied that the Document Conversion lab, where scans are made, “works with what they get,” suggesting a philosophy of “garbage in, garbage out.” I didn’t argue.

I did observe that the FBI has misspelled the names of individuals for which it has files – e.g., in document NN-5, Carlton Goodlett is misspelled – and he is listed as having a Ph.D. rather than an M.D. This means that anyone seeking information on this black San Francisco physician, newspaper publisher, and Peoples Temple ally, will never have access to this file if the request spells his name correctly.

Although my phone contact had given me permission to come in the following morning, I decided not to go since the FBI could not find the files I wanted to see. All in all it was a frustrating experience. In the course of a few short hours, I learned that:

1) There is no public access to the public reading room;

2) The FBI set up procedures to gain access, yet does not follow up on its own responsibilities when the requester abides by the rules;

3) Once access is granted, the FBI does not adequately communicate that information to the security gate;

4) The FBI lacks the most basic of research tools, namely, a guide to its own holdings. I do not understand how the FBI can keep track of its own files without a list of what it has in its possession. At the very minimum, this is something the FBI should have.

I addressed these issues in a letter to the head of the FBI’s FOIA unit. The reply defended the security procedures, apologized for the snafu, and did not address the inability to provide the requested files. I’m afraid it will require more than one visit to work through these problems.