All FBI Files Inevitably Get Deeply Personal

Article excerpt

ELVIS PRESLEY had one. So did Al Capone and Malcolm X, Albert Einstein and Abbie Hoffman. You may have one, too, tucked away in a government office somewhere. You could be the last to know.

They are FBI files, the sort of files mishandled by the Clinton administration. In recent weeks, there has been plenty of talk about the potential for the administration playing dirty tricks with the more than 600 files the White House obtained from the FBI - most of them obtained improperly.

The files contain background and security clearance checks for prominent Republicans, including key members of President George Bush's foreign policy team. White House officials say obtaining the files was a bureaucratic snafu. But some members of Congress say the White House's inability to explain clearly how and why the files were obtained amounts to a political cover-up.

According to FBI agents, government watchdog groups and legal scholars, not all FBI files are created equal. Some are opened for routine background checks and security clearances for government posts. Others are created during criminal investigations. And there are files the agency opens, citing national security needs.

All have one thing in common: they contain deeply personal details of a subject's life.

"This is not coffee-table reading," says David C. Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, an organization that helps people obtain their files through the Freedom of Information Act. "These documents are highly detailed and personal."

Nobody knows for sure just how many files are kept by the FBI. Not even the FBI.

"I have no idea how many files we have," says FBI spokeswoman Jennifer Spencer. "We've requested that information internally, and we haven't gotten an answer yet. I don't think it's something we can just come up with."

Groups that monitor the FBI and its files say the bureau has compiled records on nearly 80 million organizations and individuals - living and long gone - since the agency was founded in 1908. Each year, the FBI adds about 800,000 names to its files.

The most routine type of FBI file is at the center of the White House flap.

When someone is named to a sensitive government post, the FBI conducts one of two types of investigations. One is a basic background check. The other is a security clearance check, used when more delicate posts are involved.

Agents are given this order: Determine whether the person is loyal, trustworthy and suitable for the job and if there is anything that could embarrass the government or compromise the candidate.

In the case of candidates for government jobs, the candidates themselves do part of the work by filling out a questionnaire that demands information dating back 15 years, including work and education histories, foreign travel, family relationships, mental and physical health backgrounds and drug and alcohol use. …