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Freedom of Information Act

Barbara Krasner-Khait looks at a policy that is a good friend to genealogists.

Form G-639 (top) can get you passenger and naturalization papers from the INS; the Freedom of Information Act provided the author with her grandfather’s naturalization papers.
There is perhaps no better friend to an American genealogist than the US government’s Freedom of Information Act. Whether you’re having a tough time locating naturalization records or you need to verify a birthplace or parent’s name, the FOIA can help. If your family members served in the US military or had any dealings with the FBI, the FOIA can help.

What Is It
The Freedom of Information Act went into effect 4 July 1967 and affected access to 20th-century records. While there is no restriction on records pertaining to yourself, you can get access to records about the deceased if you provide proof of death and about those still alive by submitting your request with authorization in the form of written, notarized permission. There is no restriction on records created 75-100 years ago, aside from the 72-year restriction on the federal census. The act requires federal government agencies and the armed forces to release records to the public on request unless the information is exempted by the Privacy Act of 1974 or for national security reasons. Records containing information on adoption, illegitimacy or mental health remain closed except by court order.

In the fall of 1996 the bill “Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996” was passed. The bill addressed time limits and agency backlogs of FOIA requests. One major change under this set of amendments concerned the maintenance of agency reading rooms, requiring agencies to make three categories of records — final opinions rendered in the adjudication of administrative cases, specific agency policy statements, and administrative staff manuals that affect the public — routinely available for public inspection and copying. The new amendments added categories of reading room records and made them mostly electronically available through Internet online access.

Hot links available from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) FOIA Electronic Reading Room include Holocaust Era Assets and JFK Assassination Records Collection Database.

Form SS-5 provides your family member’s original Social Security application such as this one for my grandmother’s cousin, Nathan Seifer (born as Seife).
Types Of Information
Naturalization: You can request a search for the record of an immigrant ancestor naturalized on or after 27 September 1906 by submitting a new form G-639 (replacing G-641). You can request a Freedom of Information Act Form G-639 from the INS in one of three ways:

1. Call 1-800-870-3676 to request the form be mailed to you.

2. Download the Form G-639 online ( 04foia/att_d.htm).

3. Fill out an online request ( exec/forms/index.asp) to have the forms mailed to you.

Where to Find and File FOIA Requests

National Archives and Records Administration
NARA’s Freedom of Information Act reading room is located at the National Archives at College Park (Archives II) facility. To file a FOIA request for NARA operational records of any NARA organizational unit nationwide except the Office of the Inspector General, write to: NARA FOIA Officer, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, Room 4400, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. The electronic
reading room can be accessed through the Internet (

Social Security Administration
To request copies of applications for social security numbers (Form SS-5) for people who are deceased, address your request to: Social Security Administration Office of Central Records, Operations FOIA Workgroup, P.O. Box 17772, 300 N. Greene Street, Baltimore, MD, 21290. Mark both the envelope and its contents: “freedom of information request” or “information request”. The SSA advises not to include a return envelope.

Immigration and Naturalization Service
Send your completed G-639 form to: INS FOIA, Room 5304, 425 I Street NW, Washington, DC, 20536.

Military Service Records
Using Form 180, which you can download online (, you can request 20th-century service records for soldiers serving in the US armed forces from the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO, 63132.

FBI Files
From the FBI’s electronic reading room (, you can click on a series of names and events and download FBI files. You can choose from a consolidated alphabetical list, a list of famous people, gangsters, historical events or more.

The request should adequately describe the specific records you’re looking for (e.g., Naturalization, Visa, Registry, Alien Registration Records) to enable the INS to conduct a search. The minimum information required is the alien’s full name (with other alternate names or spellings) and the date and place (country) of birth. Other useful information to submit includes: name at time of entry into the US, Alien Registration Number, Petition Number, and Name on Naturalization Certificate. If the search takes more than two hours and duplication of documents is for more than 100 pages, there is a charge if fees exceed $14.

Genealogist Harriet Rudnit of Glenview, Illinois says, “I submitted an FOIA form to get my grandfather’s naturalization papers. So far they haven’t found anything, but the request was honored. Be sure to ask for all documents — petition for naturalization, naturalization, and any other relevant papers when you write.”

Social Security: The Social Security Death Index from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been made available to the public through the FOIA. You can access the index using Internet sites such as ( However, you will probably want to request the actual social security application (using Form SS-5) from the FOIA Officer. The form will include the applicant’s address, date and place of birth, father’s name and mother’s maiden name, sex, race and in some cases, employment information. The original application is a registration for future benefits. To receive a copy of the original application, you must supply proof of death (usually in the form of a death certificate) and your relationship to the deceased. The fee is $7 if you include the decedent’s social security number and $16.50 if you don’t.

Military Service: The public has the right to access certain military service information without the veteran’s authorization or that of next-of-kin. This includes: name, service number, rank, dates of service, awards and decorations, city/town and state of last known address, including date of the address. If the veteran is deceased, information can include place of birth, geographic location of death, and place of burial. There are two caveats to bear in mind: (1) the National Personnel Records Center places emphasis on providing information for veteran benefits, not on genealogical searches; and (2) a 1973 fire destroyed millions of military records and damaged millions more. Eighty percent of army records for 1912-59 are gone as are 60 percent of air force records for 1947-1963.

Some Agencies with FOIA Contacts

• Agency for International Development
• Agriculture Department
• Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms
• Central Intelligence Agency
• United States Coast Guard
• Commerce Department
• United States Customs Service
• Defense Department
• Education Department
• Federal Aviation Administration
• Federal Communications Commission
• Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
• Federal Trade Commission
• Food & Drug Administration
• Foreign Claims Settlement Commission
• Health & Human Services Department
• Housing & Urban Development Department
• United States Information Agency
• Interior Department
• Internal Revenue Service
• International Trade Commission
• Justice Department
-Criminal Division
-Federal Bureau of Investigation
-Immigration & Naturalization
• Library of Congress
• National Aeronautics & Space
• National Archives & Records Administration
• National Security Council
• Peace Corps
• Postal Service
• United States Secret Service
• Securities & Exchange Commission
• Social Security Administration
• State Department
• Veterans Affairs Department

Source: FOIA Update, Spring 1998

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Under the Freedom of Information Act, you can request information from the FBI. If you’re looking for information on significant historic events, celebrities, or gangsters, you can download files from the FBI’s electronic reading room.

Says Memphis, Tennessee, researcher Richard Wanderman, Jr., “I was recently able to acquire and download the FBI file (actually, 32 downloads) of Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, who is the first cousin of my great-grand-aunt’s husband. In it I was able to discover his parents’ names and a few other things. I know it’s a bit weird, but I was able to get his FBI record due to the FOIA.”

Hilary Henkin of Atlanta, Georgia used the FOIA to request FBI records as well. She reports, “Family lore says one of my relatives was watched by the FBI for many years because of his political beliefs. I wrote to the FBI for a copy of his file, under the FOIA. About six months later, I received a letter telling me that those records had been destroyed as per normal policy. I appealed the decision, and recently received a second letter that the records had indeed been destroyed.”

Patience Is A Virtue
Though the 1996 amendments require agencies to fulfill requests within a 10- or 20-day time period, patient researchers are aware that this deadline is not always met. Says Carol Skydell of Chilmark, Massachusetts, “The Social Security Administration has never met the legal requirement of getting back to me within the allowable time, but they do get back, eventually.”

Worth The Wait
Harry Stein of Tucson, Arizona, sums up the benefits of pursuing federal agencies for information under the FOIA. “I define success as getting what I asked for if it was available. If it was not available, I received a complete explanation. Most agencies have a Freedom of Information Act office to execute freedom of information act requests. I have used it with the military services, immigration and naturalization service and several federal courts. Many others have recovered unclassified information from the FBI.”

While your request may not turn up the information you’re looking for as in Henkin’s example, it’s certainly worth the price of a stamp or a quick online look to ask.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Family Chronicle.


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