“Dear Professor Martin,” the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) wrote to me, “This is in response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.” I could not believe the FBI responded to my FOIA request for Reverend Charles E. Fuller (1887–1968) so quickly. An initial response to a FOIA request normally takes twenty business days. Miraculously, I received a response in just five days. If the FOIA office continued with such speed, I thought, my research project on the history of the FBI and religious broadcasting would be completed more quickly than I, or anyone else, had imagined. This was going to be smooth sailing.
I could not have been more wrong. The Bureau letter informed me that they had identified records that were related to the popular twentieth-century religious broadcaster. However, to my chagrin, the files “were destroyed in February 2005” under court order. I was deflated. I requested FBI files, but all I got was confirmation that at one time they existed and were no more. That was it. I did not receive any details on the file—length, duration, or content; apparently everything was scrapped. I read the letter again. I could not believe my eyes. I rummaged through the envelope, hoping to find page two of what was clearly a one-page letter.
Exasperated and bewildered, I murmured to my involuntary audience in the mailroom: “You’ve got to be kidding me? Is this all there is?”
The number of FBI files is voluminous. By the late 1970s they consisted of approximately twenty-five million case files in 214 different classifications (today there are more than 278)—criminal, domestic intelligence, bank fraud, research matters—dating primarily from 1939 to the present. This mass of files, housed at FBI Headquarters, FBI field offices across the country, and legal attaché (foreign outposts) measured roughly 300,000 cubic feet. Why then, of all files, would the Bureau destroy records that pertained to Reverend Charles E. Fuller? He was a pioneering religious broadcaster whose internationally syndicated radio show, the Old Fashioned Revival Hour, ran from 1937 to 1968. He was overwhelmingly popular. His voice can still be heard via recordings of his broadcast, which still air to this day. Yet his FBI file is gone forever. How can this be?
I learned that the answer lies in Federal Court. The FBI began destroying case files on a massive scale following J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972. The Bureau decided, among other things, that the files were useless and taking up much needed space. Moreover, according to the Bureau, the upkeep of the trove had become an unnecessary burden. Detractors begged to differ. Following NBC News’s revelation that the Bureau had an extensive Counter-Intelligence Program (named COINTELPRO) against US citizens, the Watergate scandal, and the 1976 Final Report of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence, Americans believed their FBI was hiding something.
The public was not delusional. Indeed, the Senate Select Committee (commonly known as the Church Committee after committee chairman Senator Frank Church) revealed the extent to which Hoover’s FBI had engaged in criminal behavior including illegal entries, spying, counterintelligence, and political and personal harassment of US citizens, especially those who advocated for black equality. These discoveries prompted the federal government to pass legislation making it easier for the public to legally obtain FBI files (that is, the modern day FOIA). However, the Bureau was systematically destroying records.
In 1979, the American Friends Service Committee, along with eleven other religious, civil liberties, and peace organizations and forty individuals, brought legal action in federal court to stop the destruction. Judge Harold H. Greene of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction prohibiting the destruction of FBI files and ordered the National Archives and Records Service (now Administration, or NARA) and the Bureau to prepare and submit to the court a retention plan for FBI records. The government agencies took on the largest and most intricate appraisal archivists had ever known. They were charged with the task of creating a plan that would address the opposing concerns of the Bureau and the broader public. The power to determine which FBI records would be kept or destroyed was in their collective hands.
The NARA and the FBI submitted the two-volume, 1,400-page FBI Records Retention Plan and Disposition Schedules report to the court on November 9, 1981. The blueprint was crafted over the course of roughly six months by a seventeen-member task force complemented by the input of approximately six hundred scholars. Examining every file was virtually impossible, even with a half-million-dollar budget. Instead, the team opted for a statistical sampling model. The task force examined a sample of almost twenty thousand case files from the 214 file classifications. In the presence of FBI personnel, each file was examined through a rubric of seventy-five questions, including file size, date range, types of documents, categories of subjects, case history, investigative/intelligence gathering techniques, and the results of the case.
Each file was then rated for its research potential, ranging from high to medium, low, or none. “A high rating was defined as evidence or information that is unique and of much substantive detail and richness that the case file stands alone as a primary historical source.” A “none” on the other hand, “was defined as evidence or info so ordinary and routine that the case file has no significance as a historical source even in the context of other case files in the same classification.” Such data was recorded on a collection sheet, and then used to generate a computer-based profile for each of the 214 classifications. The profiles were then utilized to determine what percentages and characteristics of files in each classification would be kept permanently or shredded into extinction.
The fate of the file also determined the destiny of its corresponding index card. The FBI maintained a general index of 65,500,000 cards. This collection of 3×5-inch index cards contained names of individuals, organizations, and general subjects that were of primary investigative focus to the FBI, as well as cross-references to related secondary subjects. The report recommended retaining only the index cards of permanent files. All others were ordered destroyed. This was how the NARA and the FBI determined which FBI files and records would be saved, and which would receive the same lot as Reverend Fuller’s file: tossed into the dustbin of history.
The plan was finally put into motion on September 8, 1986. Judge Greene lifted the order banning the destruction of FBI files. He praised the scheme as “a reasonable plan, which will permit researchers and others to attain access to those FBI records which may be of historical and other legitimate interest.” Each classification was assigned a different retention schedule based on its determined research value. For example, the plan concluded that the 200,000 case files in Classification 44: “Civil Rights,” had high research potential. The task force recommended that all cases opened prior to 1977 in Classification 44 be kept permanently, along with their index cards. All such permanent files, the report recommended, should be transferred to NARA fifty years after the file was closed. The public could access the files through FOIA request, while the FBI was alleviated from the burden of monitoring the same.
However, the almost two million case files in Classification 100: “Domestic Intelligence” were given a different designation. The statistical sampling model determined that every file was not worth keeping. “All cases,” the report listed, “with 18 or more serials (individual documents)—Permanent; all cases with an institution or organization as the subject—Permanent; all informant cases—Permanent; all others DESTROY” after the file was thirty years old. Perhaps this explained the fate of the elusive file I was chasing?
I wrote back to the FBI. I wanted to know if they could at least tell me the file number. What was the classification of the phantom file? Once again they responded in record speed. The responsive file number was 100-HQ-100627, an FBI headquarters domestic intelligence file. This meant that Reverend Charles E. Fuller was the subject of an FBI domestic intelligence investigative file.
So all was not lost. Armed with the file number, the phantom file took on a form. I was able to deduce several things using the FBI Records Retention Plan and Disposition Schedule for Domestic Intelligence files. Fuller’s file was first and foremost small (less than eighteen serials). It probably did not involve informants or electronic surveillance, and it was probably explicitly focused on Fuller, not his ministerial organization. As a result, the contents of Reverend Fuller’s file were presumably deemed as having no research value. It was stamped as “evidence or info so ordinary and routine that the case file ha[d] no significance as a historical source even in the context of other case files in the same classification.”
But what exactly is ordinary about having an FBI file? Is not the very existence of a file historically significant, even if it is less than eighteen pages? I will never know the extent to which the FBI was concerned and/or engaged with Fuller. I will never know exactly why the FBI was concerned and/or engaged with Fuller or what exactly prompted their interest. Was the preacher seen as a security risk? Or as an ally of the Bureau? Was he approached to be an informant? Did he receive creditable death threats? Was his life in jeopardy? Was the FBI simply curious about his popularity? And what of his index card? What other individuals or organizations were related to the Bureau’s investigation of Reverend Fuller?
I will never fully know the answers to these questions, nor any of the information the Bureau actually obtained and collected on the Old Fashioned Revival Hour evangelist. Furthermore, I will never know the means the Bureau used to obtain said information. All of this has been legally vanished.
This reality cheerfully motivates me to dig deeper even as it haunts me. Researching the FBI and religion is a burdensome joy. I have found the staff at the FOIA office and at the NARA to be professional, kind, dedicated, and even willing to acknowledge our shared plight. FBI Director Hoover was fastidious and hyper-vigilant (some would say paranoid). He birthed a system of compiling records and files that grew to an archive of seemingly infinite data. And it continues to grow and change every day. However, unlike most archives, the researcher does not have a finding aid. Rather, the researcher(s) crafts a finding aid by writing the FOIA staff with myriad requests, all of which are largely dependent on the transparency of the FBI. It is the definition of a shot in the dark, hit and miss, trial and error.
These peculiar circumstances produce a contradiction within me. Every time I receive a rejection, or news of a destroyed file, or better yet, an actual file, I am motivated to write a narrative of the FBI and religion. Yet, paradoxically, as I go through every letter and file, front to back, back to front, and try to craft that narrative, my cursor becomes immobilized by the stalking question that seems to accompany every letter and file I receive: “Is this all there is . . .?”