Archival Neglect: Flooding of FBI Archives Destroyed Hundreds of Thousands of Pages of Files Related to Civil Rights Movement History
Special to Unredacted by Trevor Griffey, PhD
This September 2nd marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) only major counterintelligence program (or COINTELPRO) to “to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” right-wing organizations.
The FBI is often known for its opposition to the left rather than its opposition to the right. Ten of the its eleven COINTELPRO operations between 1956 and 1971 illegally sought to destroy the personal and professional lives of those who participated in left wing and anti-racist organizations— from the Communist Party to the Black Panther Party, from American supporters of Fidel Castro to proponents of Puerto Rican independence, from the Nation of Islam to Martin Luther King.
But the FBI’s COINTELPRO against “various Klans and hate organizations” marked an exception. Following years of criticism by civil rights activists who claimed that the FBI was not doing enough to prevent racial terrorism in the South, amidst the revival of the Third Ku Klux Klan, and at the height of the FBI’s investigation of the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in June of 1964, the FBI initiated a campaign to destroy 19 different offshoots of the Third Ku Klux Klan, as well as nine other white nationalist organizations, including the American Nazi Party.
Within a year of first launching its COINTELPRO, the FBI estimated later that roughly 600 of the Klan’s 10,000 members were FBI informants. By 1967, according to a report first disclosed by the Church Committee, the FBI had “set up an entire klavern of the Klan composed of Bureau informants, and that they paid the expenses of setting up the organization” in order to produce a rivalry between an authentic Klan chapter and one under the FBI’s control.[i] The counterintelligence program’s architect, FBI Domestic Intelligence Director William Sullivan, claimed in his posthumously published memoir that “the counterintelligence techniques we brought to our fight against the Klan have been thoroughly damned by the press and the public, but our successful use of these techniques is what finally broke them up.”[ii]
A few scholars— most notably John Drabble and David Cunningham—have written about the FBI’s campaign to destroy the white nationalist movement in the 1960s. But popular memory of it remains low, with most scholarship and popular discussion about COINTELPRO focused on the FBI’s campaigns to disrupt the left.
To what degree were FBI agents and undercover informants in the Klan complicit in hate speech and hate crimes in the 1960s? What effect did FBI repression of the Klan during the 1960s have on the history of the right and on American politics more generally? These and other questions related to the history of the FBI’s COINTELPRO against the Klan deserve further investigation.
But unfortunately, valuable documents through which these and other questions could be investigated were destroyed last year during Hurricane Sandy. In a huge loss from a one-of-a-kind archive that had never been released to the public, somewhere between one fifth and one third of the FBI’s 62,000 page Birmingham, Alabama field office file on the United Klans of America (UKA) was destroyed by flooding of FBI archives in Alexandria, Virginia, according to documents that the FBI released last month to the web site Muckrock.org.
The UKA was a major target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO against white nationalist organizations. And as the “office of origin” for the FBI’s investigation of the UKA, the Birmingham field office played an essential role in the campaign. The Birmingham file on the UKA (file number 105-BH-722) likely contained voluminous materials that cannot be found in other FBI files— including transcripts of conversations recorded using wiretaps and bugs, informant reports, handwritten agent notes, and documentation of the secret society’s membership throughout the United States.
I submitted a FOIA request for a copy of the Birmingham file four years ago. In response, the FBI claimed that it could not locate the file. When I appealed, the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy forced the FBI to acknowledge the existence of the 62,000 page file, but the FBI then asked me to pay $2,000 for its declassification. Unable to afford the cost, I passed information about the file to a non-profit that specializes in researching white nationalist organizations. That organization submitted a FOIA request, but was denied a fee waiver. During the subsequent debate over whether to declassify the file for free, the archive containing the file flooded, and a significant part of the file is now lost to historians forever.
Millions of Pages of Files Destroyed
The FBI’s file on the UKA was just one of the thousands of FBI files damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy. The FBI provided Muckrock.org with an incomplete list of more than 76,000 volumes of files destroyed by flooding at its Alexandria archive last year, and plans to release more lists in the future. Each volume contained between 1-250 pages of documents, making it likely that millions of pages of documents were lost. And this doesn’t even include the 3,000+ cubic feet of files destroyed in the FBI’s Moonachie, New Jersey facility during the hurricane.
Though it’s difficult to assess the full scope of the damage based on the limited information released so far by the FBI, it’s clear that thousands of pages of files of significance for the study of civil rights movement history were damaged, including:
- Forty-one volumes (likely over 8,000 pages) from the FBI’s main headquarters file on the National Negro Labor Council (file number 100-HQ-367632)— one of the most important civil rights organizations of the early 1950s, which was driven out of existence by anticommunist pressure.
- Twenty-four volumes (almost 5,000 pages) from the FBI’s Chicago field office file on Claude Lightfoot (file number 61-CG-867), a prominent black communist for almost 60 years.
- Nineteen volumes (almost 4,000 pages) from the FBI’s Memphis field office file on the Nation of Islam (file number 105-ME-160).
- Eight volumes (roughly 1,500 pages) from the FBI’s massive Detroit field office general file on civil rights issues from the 1940s through the mid-1960s (file number 44-DE-00).
Some other files of significance to the study of the left include almost 3,000 pages from the FBI’s main headquarters file on peace activist David Dellinger (100-HQ-384411), and 1,500 pages from the FBI’s Chicago field office on the National Labor Federation (100-CG-55510). The list also documents damage to 300 volumes of Chicago field office files on illegal gambling (182 series), and the destruction of an astonishingly large file (perhaps 300,000 pages) on an unknown topic related to foreign counterintelligence or anti-racist nationalism produced by the FBI’s San Francisco field office (105-SF-16284).
The destruction of such historically significant files raises a number of serious questions about the FBI’s archival practices.
One obvious question is why FBI archives were susceptible to flooding, and whether the flooding has exposed weaknesses in the FBI’s records management practices more broadly.
A more important question, however, is: why are these archives in the possession of the FBI at all? Why does the FBI continue to retain millions of pages of historically significant files, many of which are over 50 years old, that have no relevance to its contemporary law enforcement mission? Why have these files not already been transferred to the National Archives?
Many of the historically significant files destroyed in the Virginia flooding included a series of files that were supposed to have been transferred to the National Archives during George W. Bush’s second term— “44 series” files on the civil rights movement. Almost ten years later, these files should not still be in the FBI’s possession.
Other files of major significance to the study of racial justice, the left, and U.S. foreign policy— particularly the FBI’s 105 series files, which include hundreds of thousands of pages of files on the Black Panther Party— remain in the FBI’s possession and decades away from ever being declassified or transferred to the National Archives.
These and other historically significant files that sit in secret FBI warehouses are vulnerable to more than just flooding. Decades-old standards for determining historical significance that tend to treat local history as unimportant, combined with wide latitude granted to FBI records management staff, have resulted in tragic and reckless destruction of many historically significant files.
Field office files are especially vulnerable to being destroyed. For example, there is almost no collection of FBI files of greater popular interest than the FBI’s files on its counterintelligence program against the black freedom movement in the late 1960s. But instead of preserving its field office files on this illegal program in their entirety, the FBI has been profoundly inconsistent. When the FBI assessed 29 field office files from this COINTELPRO for transfer to the National Archives between 2005 and 2008, it only transferred 14 files. It destroyed 12 others files, and withheld 3 from the National Archives.
Such reckless and inconsistent file implementation of records management standards, resulting in tragic and unnecessary destruction, demonstrates that the FBI is not the proper custodian of its own historic archive. This is probably unsurprising. After all, the FBI is led by law enforcement officers with an investment in secrecy, not librarians committed to transparency. But the recent massive archival losses from flooding, combined with the FBI’s inconsistent approach to archival preservation, suggests the need for much greater oversight by the National Archives before more historically valuable files are destroyed.
Trevor Griffey is a Lecturer in U.S. History and Labor Studies at the University of Washington’s Bothell and Seattle campuses. A co-founder of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, he is currently working on publishing an online archive of FBI files on the black freedom movement in the 20th century.
[i] Church Committee Hearings, Volume 6 (1976), p. 144 http://archive.org/details/Church-Committee-Hearings-Volume6-FBI
[ii] William C. Sullivan and Bill Brown, The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 128