Now you wait. But hopefully not too long!
Once you've sent in your request, you should get an acknowledgment letter from the FBI in 10-20 days stating that they have received your request and begun processing it.
If the FBI is unable to find any records, you will probably get a letter saying so in about a month. If you do get such a letter, check out "What should I do if they say there are no records?" below.
If the FBI does find records, you probably won't hear anything for a while after you get back the initial acknowledgment letter. Then, typically in three or four months, you'll get a nice envelope in your mailbox with your records. Larger files may take anywhere from three to nine months.
What do I do if the FBI says there are no records?
If the FBI response letter seems to say that that there are no records, first read the letter very carefully - the wording can be vague. Make sure that the response letter says:
First, that they actually searched for records.
Second, that they searched both the automated (computer) indices and the general (manual) indices. If they did search both, the letter will say so (and our letter asked them to do so). If they didn't search both, you should submit another letter asking them again to search the general (manual) indices.
If the letter says they searched both the automated (computer) indices and the general (manual) indices and says they found no main files, there is one additional step you can take: You can send them a new letter asking them specifically to search for "cross references" instead of just main files. The letter should mention that a search for main files was already accomplished. (A cross reference is a reference to the person or subject in a file with a different title.)
You might ask: why not ask them to search cross references from the start? The answer is that the FBI has been very reluctant to search cross references because it takes longer. It streamlines their process to only search for main files unless someone insists on a search for cross references. (The FBI may indicate that they don't search for cross references, but this is not an accurate statement.)
For obvious reasons, a search for cross references is more easily performed for an unusual name rather than a more common name. If you have a very common name, you probably should refrain from asking for a search of cross references because it is likely to be inconclusive and burdensome.
Finally, keep in mind that the FBI compiled records and files on people a lot more in the old days than they do today. So if you have read the above and looked carefully at how the response letter was written and it still seems there is no file on you, don't be too disappointed -- you're in good company.
What do I do if the FBI says that records that may have been responsive to my request have been destroyed?
If you receive a letter saying that files that may pertain to your request have been destroyed, you can ask the FBI for information on the date the files were destroyed and the file numbers of the destroyed records. The numeric prefix on the file numbers (the first few digits of the file number) contains information about the type of case the file concerned. These codes are explained at http://newstrench.com/secret-no-more/secret-no-more-fbi-central-records-systems-classification.
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