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10 Ridiculous Documents Released via the Freedom of Information Act

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brad heath, twitter

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

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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

myfloridaspecialtyplate.com

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

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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

YouTube, South Park Studios 

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Wikimedia Commons

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.”

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Animals
Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Weird
How the U-2 Aircraft Made Area 51 Synonymous With UFOs
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Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Area 51 may be the world’s most famous secret military base. Established on an abandoned airfield in the Nevada desert, the facility has fueled the imaginations of conspiracy theorists scanning the skies for UFOs for decades. But the truth about Area 51’s origins, while secretive, isn’t as thrilling as alien autopsies and flying saucers.

According to Business Insider, the U.S. government intended to build a base where they could test a top-secret military aircraft without drawing attention from civilians or spies. That aircraft, the U-2 plane, needed to fly higher than any other manmade object in the skies. That way it could perform recon missions over the USSR without getting shot down.

Even over the desert, the U-2 didn’t go completely undetected during test flights. Pilots who noticed the craft high above them reported it as an “unidentified flying object.” Not wanting to reveal the true nature of the project, Air Force officials gave flimsy explanations for the sightings pointing to either natural phenomena or weather research. UFO believers were right to think the government was covering something up, they were just wrong about the alien part.

You can get the full story in the video below.

[h/t Business Insider]

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