This month marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of COINTELPRO, a major FBI operation to "expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize" domestic political organizations deemed a threat to the U.S. It's just been revealed that many crucial questions about that period will remain forever unanswered, due to archival neglect.
Writing at the blog of the National Security Archive, Trevor Griffey— a lecturer in U.S. history and labor studies at the University of Washington—says that he learned about the loss of the documents when the FBI responded to a FOIA request. Hundreds of thousands of pages were destroyed last year during a hurricane, when the FBI archives in Alexandria, Virginia were flooded.
Among the losses: 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, as well as documents on a Klan chapter created by the FBI to produce a rivalry with an authentic Klan group.
Griffey says those documents could have answered some significant historical questions:
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.
And, Griffey adds, thousands of other historically significant files were destroyed:
- Forty-one volumes (likely over 8,000 pages) from the FBI's main headquarters file on the National Negro Labor Council— one of the most important civil rights organizations of the early 1950s, which was driven out of existence by anti-communist pressure.
- Twenty-four volumes (almost 5,000 pages) from the FBI's Chicago field office file on Claude Lightfoot, 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.
- 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.
Griffey wonders whether news of this flooding will expose other weaknesses in the FBI's records management practices:
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....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.