The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and possibly also the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), have hundreds of thousands of pages of documents related to what the FBI called “communist activities” abroad. The FBI may also have substantial archives on “police matters,” “labor conditions,” “Soviet Diplomatic Activities,” “smuggling,” and “informants” in dozens of other countries in Europe, Asia, and especially the Americas during the Cold War.
But nearly all of the materials in these archives are classified, and currently unavailable to the public. So I encourage researchers interested in studying the history of global policing and intelligence-sharing networks between countries since World War II to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to have the FBI declassify these materials. Below I provide some information about FBI investigations abroad and file numbers that may be of interest to researchers, based on my experience getting the FBI’s file on “Communist Activities in the Philippine Islands” declassified via FOIA a few years ago.
FBI OPERATIONS OUTSIDE THE U.S.
The FBI’s activities have not just been confined to the United States. During World War II, the FBI operated a “Special Intelligence Service” (SIS) that monitored Axis activities in Latin America. Although the SIS dissolved in 1946, and its activities in Latin America were largely absorbed by other U.S. agencies following creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947, the end of World War II did not mark the end of FBI activities beyond U.S. borders. Instead, the FBI developed a network of “legal attaché” offices, or what it called LEGATs, at U.S. embassies and consulates throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia and (to a lesser degree) Africa. Through these LEGATs, the FBI has trained police forces, participated in transnational criminal investigations, and developed intelligence-sharing networks (or “liaison” relationships) with other governments’ police and military agencies.
The FBI’s activities abroad appear to have grown significantly since the end of the Cold War. According to a United States Department of Justice report, the FBI had just 15 LEGATS in 1990. That number tripled to 45 by 2001. In 2002, the FBI’s LEGATs were pursing more than 53,000 active investigations. Further, the FBI’s website indicates that the number of LEGATS has since grown by another 33% in the last 15 years and that the FBI now has “64 legal attaché offices—commonly known as legats—and more than a dozen smaller sub-offices in key cities around the globe, providing coverage for more than 200 countries, territories, and islands.”
FBI FILES ON “COMMUNIST ACTIVITIES” ABROAD
One large set of FBI documents related to global politics is its files on the “communist activities” of people from outside the United States. This file, with the number 64-HQ-200, documents both the travel of suspected communists from other nations to the United States, as well as the activities of communists abroad. Based on my having viewed subfile 239 of FBI file 64-HQ-200, on “Communist Activities in the Philippine Islands,” I can say with some level of certainty that FBI files on “communist activities” are likely to contain documents from a variety of sources, including: confidential communication with government embassies and anti-communist foreign nationals in the United States, communication with CIA and U.S. military intelligence, and intelligence from a variety of sources (including foreign government military intelligence, police, and government agencies) obtained by FBI LEGATs abroad. The documents that I reviewed revealed less about Filipino social movements or activists than about the operation of international anti-communist networks for tracking leftists.
Through archival research in declassified documents, I have gathered an incomplete list of subfile numbers and corresponding subjects contained in the FBI’s file on communist activities. In response to communication related to one of my FOIA requests, the FBI provided me with a list of a rough count of the number of sections contained within some of the subfiles that I identified. Each “section” of each subfile is likely to contain approximately 150-225 pages of documents. The resulting list below testifies to the sheer volume of the collection, more than 150,000 pages, which to my knowledge has never been declassified (except for subfile 239):
Subfile 204: Bolivia
Subfile 205: Brazil (100 sections)
Subfile 207: Chile (31 sections)
Subfile 208: Columbia (31 sections)
Subfile 209: Costa Rica
Subfile 210: Cuba (96 sections)
Subfile 211: Dominican Republic (29 sections)
Subfile 212: Ecuador (12 sections)
Subfile 213: Guatemala (18 sections)
Subfile 217: Haiti (8 sections)
Subfile 218: Honduras (8 sections)
Subfile 219: Jamaica
Subfile 221: Mexico (151 sections)
Subfile 222: Nicaragua
Subfile 223: Panama
Subfile 224: Paraguay (6 sections)
Subfile 225: Peru
Subfile 226: El Salvador (6 sections)
Subfile 228: Venezuela (26 sections)
Subfile 231: France (49 sections)
Subfile 232: Germany (28 sections)
Subfile 233: Italy
Subfile 234: Japan (30 sections)
Subfile 236: Portugal
Subfile 237: Spain (23 sections)
Subfile 239: Philippines (20 sections)
Subfile 241: England
Subfile 243: Canada (41 sections)
Subfile 246: China (12 sections)
Subfile 249: Hungary
Subfile 252: Austria
Subfile 253: Greece
Subfile 257: India (7 sections)
Subfile 282: Iraq (3 sections)
Subfile 298: Curacao
Subfile 302: Africa (6 sections)
Subfile 303: Australia
Based on this list, then, if someone were interested in reading the FBI’s file on “Communist Activities in Haiti,” that person could submit a FOIA request to the FBI for file 64-HQ-200-Subfile 217.
It is impossible to know the value (or lack thereof) that each of these collections might have before they have been declassified and made public. But it would not be unreasonable to speculate that these files could inform a variety of research activities. They could advance scholarship about transnational anti-communist networks between police and military agencies during the Cold War, and how those networks shaped both the process of global decolonization and the development of the global war on terror. They might also help facilitate historical reckoning over the repressive activities of anti-communist dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and especially Latin America. It’s even possible that, if read against the grain, they could provide valuable information about transnational networks between social movements.
New scholarship is already coming out that indicates the potential value of these FBI files to U.S. and Latin American history. Duke University Press has just published Marc Becker’s The FBI in Latin America: The Ecuador Files, which I have not yet read. The FBI documents he has shared with the public at his “E-Archivo Ecuatoriano,” seem to come from State Department files at the National Archives, however, and represent only a tiny fragment of the probably 2,000 pages of documents that are in the FBI’s possession on the topic.
OTHER FBI FILES WITH COUNTRY-SPECIFIC SUBFILES
I have not obtained other FBI files on “foreign” topics. But a look at the FBI’s official history of the SIS, which is full of file numbers for its various operations in Latin America, suggests that the following FBI files could each have subfiles that correspond to the country-specific subfile enumeration above:
- 64-HQ-211: Soviet Diplomatic Activities
- 64-HQ-309: Smuggling
- 64-HQ-4123: Informant File
- 64-HQ-4984: Office monthly reports for LEGAT (if country has one)
- 64-HQ-29833: Police Matters
- 100-HQ-341561: Labor Conditions
For example, if the FBI has a file on the “labor conditions” of Brazil during and after World War II, the complete file number should be 100-HQ-341561-Subfile205. The FBI file number for its records on “smuggling” in Mexico should be 64-HQ-309-Subfile221.
The FBI’s files related to its LEGATs and its relationship to foreign police departments may be especially valuable for providing insights into the FBI’s activities abroad. The LEGAT monthly reports could provide a much greater understanding of the evolving role that LEGATs have played within the operation of the FBI. And FBI “Police Matters” files could provide a valuable way to develop transnational studies of governance during the latter half of the 20th century.
I encourage historians and social scientists who are specialists in the fields of the countries or regions listed above to submit FOIA requests for files to move the FBI toward declassifying them. Including a file number in one’s request will make it much easier to compel the FBI to conduct a proper search for the file, and then tell the requestor whether the file is in the FBI’s possession, is in NARA’s possession, or (as sometimes happens) has been lost or destroyed.
There is reason for uncertainty about where the original documents related to the above-mentioned files are located. Technically, in a spreadsheet shared with the web site Muckrock.com, the National Archives indicated that it currently is in possession of FBI files with a 64 classification produced between 1925 and 1989.
However, the FBI doesn’t always transfer all of its historic files to the National Archives. Sometimes it destroys them. And sometimes it holds onto them. In the case of the FBI’s files on “communist activities” in other nations, despite the National Archives being under the impression that the FBI had transferred its historic files from its 64 classification by August 5, 2015, on August 31 of that year the FBI identified more than 7,500 pages from one of its subfiles on communist activities that were still in FBI possession. Therefore it is quite possible that the FBI still retains most of its files related to “communist activities” and other topics previously outlined.
The declassification process is not fast for any federal agency, especially when the documents being requested touch upon issues of U.S. national security. The declassification of a file with only a couple sections is likely to take more than a year, in part because both NARA and the FBI “consult” with the CIA and other military intelligence agencies during the declassification process. The declassification process for large files is likely to take many years and could require an attorney to speed up the process.
The cost of declassification is not very substantial, given the volume of the files involved. The FBI charges $15 per 500 pages released as pdf files mailed to requesters on CD-ROM. The declassification process for documents held by NARA can be inconsistent, but NARA always provides researchers the opportunity to view declassified documents for free at its reading room in College Park, Maryland. Journalists and those with university affiliation likely qualify for fee waivers. The FBI rarely grants them, but sometimes the Department of Justice overrules the FBI. Either way, initiating the declassification process now could result in the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents that will be invaluable to historians in the future.
For more information about how to submit a FOIA request for the materials I’ve described here, including applying for declassification fee waivers, you may want to consult with the National Security Archive’s guide here: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/foia/foia_guide.html. Be sure to include file numbers in your request!
And if you do submit a FOIA request and receive materials back, please be sure to eventually make them accessible to the public so that other researchers may benefit from them.
Trevor Griffey, PhD, is a lecturer in Labor Studies at UCLA and California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is the co-editor of Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry (Cornell Press, 2010), and is currently working on the “FBI and Civil Rights History Project”– a digital archive of FBI files on the black freedom movement in the 20th century. You can also find him online.