Monday, February 9, 2015

FBI Disses Wikipedia

To review the FBI files on a dead person (or as much of the files as the Bureau will release), one has to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the organization with evidence the person has died (unless the subject's birth date is more than 100 years ago). Such "proof of death" can include "copy of a death certificate, Social Security Death Index, obituary, or other recognized reference source" (emphasis ours).

We have made such FOIA requests many times, including recently for Harry Towers, a deceased entertainment producer once linked to some political intrigue of interest to us.

For proof of Towers' death, we provided the FBI with his Wikipedia page, see it here, which includes links to obituaries from well-known publications Variety, The Guardian and The Independent.

However, the FBI kicked back our request, saying: "The FBI does not accept Wikipedia as a recognized reference source" (see the letter below).

In our experience, Wikipedia entries on dead celebrities are generally accurate and usually include links to outside publications that can certainly be considered reliable and "recognized reference source(s)."

But the FBI's policy again raises questions about Wikipedia's accuracy  -- questions that surface with some regularity. Back in 2005, the well-recognized journal "Nature" reported Wikipedia was almost as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. That analysis sparked a debate that continues until today, a debate well summarized by -- you guessed it -- this Wikipedia entry. [Worth noting is that the FBI, in our experience, is always eager to find ways to dismiss FOIA requests at their earliest stages, so the motive here may also involve making it harder for requesters to provide acceptable "recognized reference sources." Another example: the FBI told our network that it could not find any records on North Korea's top intelligence and terrorist organizations; see here.]

So what do you think: Should the FBI accept Wikipedia entries for proof of death, even if that means an FBI processor might have to visit the page to double check the sources? Or is the Bureau correct to reject this crowd-sourced information as a "recognized reference source?"