The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 allows the American public unprecedented access to previously unreleased government documents through requests and automatic disclosures. In addition to being a massive asset to journalists and eager members of the public, it has also shed light on some of the weirder corners of America’s functioning democracy. Here are 10 of the strangest documents that have been secured by FOIA requests, or released by FOIA reading rooms over the years.
1. A Fan Letter From J. Edgar Hoover to His Favorite Athlete
J. Edgar Hoover was a busy man during his 48-year tenure as Director of the FBI, but not too busy to take in the occasional baseball game and write fawning letters to his favorite players, as documented in a letter released by the FBI’s FOIA electronic reading room.
The 1938 letter was written from Hoover to Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Vander Meer, fresh off back-to-back no-hitters against the Boston Bees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. After congratulating Vander Meer on the feat, Hoover writes “I thought you might be interested in knowing that last year the Federal Bureau of Investigation won the U.S. Government league championship,” but laments that “unfortunately we do not have any Johnny Vander Meers who are able to turn in two no-hit games within five days.”
2. A List of 2000 Personalized Florida License Plate Requests Reviewed For Obscene Material
For every job that kids aspire to from a young age, like firefighter, teacher, and astronaut, there are countless weird jobs that fill in the cracks of society. Working for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, a job which occasionally requires determining whether novelty license plates are road-appropriate, fits neatly into the latter category.
In 2011, the Miami New Times used a FOIA request to get their hands on a list of over 2300 personalized license plates deemed in need of review for possible objectionable content. The list ranges from the destined-for-failure (“DRUNK” was roundly rejected) to every form of sexual wordplay imaginable (the board was split on “SEXCESS”) to the hilariously immature (“POOP” got the thumbs down, while “POOPIE 1” was approved).
3. An Agreement Between The United States Navy and the Makers of the Movie Battleship
Cooperation between the United States government and Hollywood occasionally makes sense, like when the CIA helped Kathryn Bigelow with her critically acclaimed 2012 film on America’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Other times, it’s just confusing, like in the case of 2012’s Battleship, a special effects-drenched action flick loosely adapted from the board game of the same name. But with aliens.
The movie was made in collaboration with the United States Navy, which gave filmmakers access to military assets like the USS Ronald Reagan and Pearl Harbor. And what did the Navy get out of it? According to documents obtained through the FOIA request website MuckRock, partial creative control over the project, including a Department of Defense technical advisor tasked with ensuring the movie “positively represents our service and our Sailors.” The Navy also secured “a minimum of ten (10) DVD copies of the Picture,” a special thanks on the credits, and a private screening in Washington.
4. FCC Complaints About Inappropriate Content On South Park
Since debuting to cries of public outrage in 1997, South Park has gained a reputation for being able to get away with pretty much anything. It could be that the public forgives the show’s over-the-top profanity because it’s also smart, funny, and frequently insightful. Or, more likely, people now know what to expect.
Most people, at least. Some folks were a little late to the South Park outrage game, as shown in documents obtained through the FOIA website Government Attic detailing complaints against the show to the Federal Communications Commission between 2004 and 2007. One slightly confused citizen wrote “You may expect something like this on HBO, Showtime, etc. but not on the Comedy Channel.” Another decided on a fair punishment for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: “They should be fined 6000 per word.”
5. The FBI’s Twitter Slang Dictionary
In a classic case of “Is this seriously what our hard-earned tax dollars are going to?” the FBI maintains a glossary of internet abbreviations used for Twitter, as well as “instant messages, Facebook and Myspace.” (We’ll let you make your own MySpace joke.) Someone privy to this fact filed a FOIA request for “A copy of all records or documentation available” on “so-called ‘leetspeak’” earlier this year. Following several months of bureaucratic back and forth, MuckRock finally got their hands on the document this June.
Considering that enemies of the state like ISIS and Al-Qaeda use Twitter and other forms of social media, it probably doesn’t seem like the world’s worst idea, until you actually read the list, with includes shorthand for everything ranging from the harmless (L8R G8R for “later gator”) to the lifted-from-the-pages-of-a-crappy-‘90s-sitcom (DEGT for “don’t even go there”) to direct references to a 1997 Jennifer Love Hewitt movie (IKWYDLS for “I know what you did last summer”).
6. Some Not-Very-Revealing Pictures Of An FBI Retirement Party
It might be hard to believe, but the FBI is made up of actual human beings who do actual human being stuff, like hang out with friends and go to parties. The Bureau was given a rare opportunity to personalize its employees when USA Today reporter Brad Heath requested pictures from a retirement party earlier this year. However, considering they chose to redact everyone’s face, you could argue that they missed the mark pretty thoroughly.
Initially tweeted by Heath and then published by Gawker, the pictures of an Atlanta-based FBI agent’s 2012 sendoff were censored under a FOIA privacy exemption, with the Bureau crudely censoring the faces of everyone involved using white squares and pentagons. The results ended up looking like a bizarre work of modern art that confirmed what we might have already assumed: There’s nothing creepier than pictures of people hugging, shaking hands, and hanging out around a pool with enormous blocks superimposed over their heads.
7. The White House’s Beer Recipe
In 2012, one Redditor learned that the old adage “ask and ye shall receive” was more than just a platitude when he used the FOIA to request the recipe for White House Honey Ale. White House chefs had been brewing small batches of the beer since 2011 at the request of President Obama, who had taken an interest in the home-brewing movement and bought a kit with his own money.
After that beer lover posted his FOIA request on Reddit, and following some interest from other home-brew lovers across the nation, the President revealed in a Reddit AMA session that the recipe would be released soon. “I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty," he declared. Shortly after, the recipe popped up on the White House’s blog, complete with ingredients and instructions. Good luck getting your hands on the honey “tapped from the first ever bee-hive on the South Lawn” used in the recipe, though.
8. FTC Complaints Against Dating Websites
The great Pat Benatar once sang “Love is a Battlefield,” and like all battlefields, it cannot be fully regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying, to the tune of 2364 complaints against the websites eHarmony, Match.com, and OkCupid.com since 2005.
Writer Inkoo Kang obtained the documents through three separate FOIA requests in 2013, with all three requests being fulfilled shortly after. Most of the complaints were made against Match.com (2056, compared to 301 against eHarmony and seven against OkCupid) and, as you might imagine, they contain everything from legitimate qualms and concerns about scams, spam, and failures to cancel payment, to lonely souls venting their dating frustrations. “Out of thousands of lesbians across the United States nobody sent me a hello or wonk [sic],” wrote one frustrated eHarmony customer. “I want my money refunded.”
9. A FBI Profile of Jack The Ripper About 100 Years Too Late
The famously unsolved “Jack the Ripper” case, which revolves around a series of violent murders in London’s Whitechapel district between 1888 and 1891, has become a favorite subject for amateur slueths, conspiracy buffs, and filmmakers. And, even though the case occurred across the Atlantic many generations ago, it was also the subject of an FBI criminal analysis in 1988.
The report was conducted by the FBI at the request of Cosgrove-Meurer Productions for their documentary production The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper, and was later released through the FBI's FOIA reading room. It includes a psychological profile of the murderer (“quiet, a loner, shy, slightly withdrawn, and orderly in appearance while working”), and even imagines a scenario in which the FBI interrogates the killer. “Jack the Ripper would be best suited to be interviewed during the early morning hours,” it reads. ”He would feel more relaxed and secure to confess his homicides.”
10. Seventeen Pages Of Correspondence Pooh-Poohing a Laugh-In Sketch
An early ancestor of Saturday Night Live, the scattershot, vaudevillian Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In is tame by today’s standards, but when it aired on NBC in 1968 and 1973, the bawdy jokes, drug references, and political satire made it one of the most controversial shows of its time. Richard Nixon famously appeared on the show while campaigning for president in 1968. However, the show’s relationship with the United States government took a turn for the worse following a 1971 skit, which, according to an FBI Vault-released document, featured “cheerleaders who sang a ‘fight song’ about the FBI.’”
Several concerned Americans wrote letters of support to J. Edgar Hoover expressing their dissatisfaction, including one viewer who chides the show for making the FBI “a target of undue ridicule and mockery.” Another launches a two-front attack on the sketch, writing that the “so-called jokes were not only not humorous but did not make any sense.” After being alerted, the FBI decided to settle on keeping a tape of the sketch “maintained in the Crime Research Section in the event the Director wishes to hear it.”