What We Learned from Grandpa’s FBI File | WBEZ
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Note to Self

What We Learned from Grandpa’s FBI File

Daniel Aaron was the grandfather of our senior producer, Kat Aaron. He was a historian, a writer… and apparently a suspected communist. At least according to the FBI file uncovered by FOIA the Dead, which uses the Freedom of Information Act to request the files of everyone in the New York Times obituary page. So far, that includes anti-nuke leaders, fair-housing activists, journalists, and a flying nun.

But what you see when you look back through FBI files of yesteryear is that surveillance is shaped by politics. Whomever catches the eye of the FBI depends a lot on what’s going on in the nation, and the world. Right now, it’s not housing activism or anti-nuclear agitation that are (most) suspect. It's terrorists, it’s Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Maybe it’s you.

This week, Parker Higgins of FOIA the Dead and Jason Leopold, senior investigative reporter at Buzzfeed (and so-called FOIA terrorist) join us to look at surveillance past and surveillance very present.

And if you want to check out Dan Aaron's scrapbook we mention in the episode, many images are at the Pressed Wafer, the publisher that brought it out into the world. 



Happy Birthday, Freedom of Information Act! You're 50, and more relevant than ever.

Any U.S. citizen (or "lawfully admitted alien") can request information on themselves (or another living person) under FOIA. So why not, right? Here’s how:    

  1. Use this portal to submit your request electronically. You can opt for a paper request, and that has its own instructions.
  2. Once you click submit, you’ll have to read & agree to some terms. But don’t worry, it’s a short TOS.
  3. Enter your email and you will receive a link to continue your request.
  4. That link will bring you to a page that asks for info like your name, email, date of birth, and address. The address part is so you can receive your file, which the FBI will send you via standard mail. Because they are old school.
  5. From there, the form is pretty simple. At one point you’ll be asked if you’re willing to pay for your file, which is up to you. You do not have to pay. They’ll explain, but shoot us a question if you’re unsure at notetoself at wnyc dot org. 
  6. You’ll certify your information and submit! You should get an email with a confirmation. Don’t expect the file soon, though… it can take a while.

N2S producer Megan requested her own file while making this list and it took exactly 7 minutes (she timed it). 

And a tip from Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold, who we talk to this week - ask for the “cross-reference” files as well as the main, investigative file. That way if you don’t have a main file yourself, but you’re mentioned in someone else’s file, they’ll include that too.


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