FBI Index

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Notable American singer Paul Robeson's index card update form from the 1970s

The FBI Indexes were a series of personnel databases used by the FBI before the adoption by the Bureau of computerized databases. They were based on paper index cards. They were used to track US citizens and others believed by the Bureau to be dangerous to national security. The indexes generally had different 'classes' of danger the 'subject' was thought to represent.

General Intelligence Division[edit]

Around the time of World War I and the First Red Scare, William J. Flynn of the Bureau of Investigation had J. Edgar Hoover[citation needed] set up a General Intelligence Division. Hoover used his experience working as a library clerk at the National Archives to set up the system using extensive cross-referencing.

The General Intelligence Division took files from the Bureau of Investigations (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and 'systematized' them via index cards; according to Walker and contrary to evidence, the cards covered 200,000 people.[1] But by 1939, Hoover had more than 10 million people 'Indexed' in the FBI's domestic file system.[2]

Although the GID was shut down in 1924 after objections from people such as William J. Donovan who called into question its constitutionality,[3] Hoover and the FBI continued to expand the Index system for use by the agency, by Hoover, and by Hoover's political associates well into the 1970s. Today, the Index files covering untold numbers of Americans are still accessible by the FBI and its 29 field offices.

Titles to numerous Index catalogs include:[2] The Reserve Index, for influential people to be "arrested and held" in case of a national emergency; The Custodial Index, which included 110,000 Japanese Americans that were held in internment prison camps during World War II; The Sexual Deviant Index; The Agitator Index; The Communist Index; and The Administrative Index, which compiled several other earlier indexes.

Even though a complete list of Index titles is currently unavailable, Hoover and the FBI used their Index system to catalog Native American and African American liberation movements during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Vietnam War protesters and other college students. Whether or not this unconstitutional Index system was folded into the present day national security terrorist watchlist program is unclear.

Custodial Detention Index[edit]

The Custodial Detention Index (CDI), or Custodial Detention List was formed in 1939–1941, in the frame of a program called variously the "Custodial Detention Program" or "Alien Enemy Control".

J. Edgar Hoover described it as having come from his resurrected General Intelligence Division in Washington. According to Hoover, it created large numbers of files on "individuals, groups, and organizations engaged in subversive activities", including espionage, and enabled the Bureau to immediately identify potential threats.[4] Congressmen Vito Marcantonio called it "terror by index cards". Senator George W. Norris complained as well.[4]

The Custodial Detention Index was a list of suspects and potential subversives, classified as "A", "B" and "C"; the ones classified as "A" were destined to be immediately arrested and interned at the outbreak of war. Category A were leaders of Axis-related organizations, category B were members deemed "less dangerous" and category C were sympathizers. The actual assignment of the categories was, however, based on the perceived individual commitment to the person's native country, rather than the actual potential to cause harm; leaders of cultural organizations could be classified as "A".

The program involved creation of individual dossiers from secretly obtained information, including unsubstantiated data and in some cases, even hearsay and unsolicited phone tips, and information acquired without judicial warrants by mail covers and interception of mail, wiretaps and covert searches. While the program targeted primarily Japanese, Italian, and German "enemy aliens", it also included some native-born American citizens. The program was run without Congress-approved legal authority, with no judicial oversight and outside of the official legal boundaries of the FBI. A person against which an accusation was made was investigated and eventually placed on the index; it was not removed until the person died. Getting on the list was easy; getting off of it was virtually impossible.[5]

According to the press releases at the beginning of the war, one of the purposes of the program was to demonstrate the diligence and vigilance of the government by following, arresting and isolating a previously identified group of people with allegedly documented sympathies for Axis powers and potential for espionage or fifth column activities.[6] The list was later used for Japanese American internment.

Attorney General Francis Biddle, when he found out about the Index, labeled it "dangerous, illegal" and ordered its end. However, J. Edgar Hoover simply renamed it the Security Index,[7] and told his people not to mention it.

Note: This is not to be confused with the actual Japanese internment and Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066; Although some say Hoover actually opposed those measures,[8] Hoover and the FBI created the list from which 110,000 people were interned, 70,000 of which were American born.

Reserve Index/Security Index[edit]

The Security Index itself was merged with the Agitator Index and the Communist Index. Renamed to the Reserve Index in 1960, this index included a Section A for teachers, doctors, lawyers, entertainers, and other people considered influential and not politically conservative. Hoover had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. added to the Reserve Index, Section A, in retaliation for his civil rights work and worldwide popularity.[9]

Renamed again to the Administrative Index (ADEX) in 1971, and allegedly discontinued in 1978, the records are still kept as inactive at FBI headquarters and 29 field offices.[10][11]

Administrative Index[edit]

FBI rep describing ADEX, 1975[12]

ADEX, or Administrative Index, lasted from 1971 to January 1978. It integrated the Security Index, the Agitator Index, and the Reserve Index.[10] It was used to track people "considered to be a threat to the security of the country".[12] ADEX had four 'categories'.[13]

An illustrative example of these files and the rationale for categorization can be seen in the case of historian Howard Zinn, a noted government critic. In his FBI files, there are two separate pages in which an agent says he should be in category III:[13]

He has been a member of the Communist Party, 1949–1953. A chief critic of the United States Government policies. A familiar figure at anti-war demonstrations up to 1972. Organized a protest rally to protest serious indictments against Father Berrigan and other members of the East Coast Conspiracy in the Summer of 1971

It is recommended that subject be included in ADEX, Category III, because he has participated in activities of revolutionary organizations within the last five years as evidenced by overt acts and statements established through reliable informants

Singer Paul Robeson was also on ADEX as Category III: "because of his long time close contact with CPUSA leaders. He was honored by the CP as recently as 1969".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In defense of American liberties: a history of the ACLU, Samuel Walker, SIU Press, 1999
  2. ^ a b Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. NY: Penguin Group, 1992.
  3. ^ Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA, Mark Riebling, published by Alfred A Knopf, 1994
  4. ^ a b Curt Gentry, J Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, WW Norton, p 213 and following
  5. ^ Taken Into Custody: the Internment of German and Italian Americans during World War II
  6. ^ Sketches Drawn of POW Tent at Camp Upton
  8. ^ Internerment, asian-nation.org, Dr. C.N. Le
  9. ^ Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The man and his Secrets. NY: penguin Group, 1992.
  10. ^ a b FBI Central Records System, from FBI, by way of Federation of American Scientists, by way of archive.org
  11. ^ http://www.nationarchive.com/Summaries/v227i0001_06.htm
  12. ^ a b FBI FOIA on Surreptitious Entries (Black Bag Jobs), File 62-117-166, part 13&14 of 30, Hearings Before the Select Committee on Intelligence, Staff Interview, Nov 5 1975, Washington DC, Present: James Oliphant, John Atkisson, Richard Vermeire, and Wannall.
  13. ^ a b FBI FOIA files on Howard Zinn, Part 3 of 4, page 86-92 of the PDF
  14. ^ FBI FOIA file on Paul Robeson Senior Page 29 of the PDF file.