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ACHRE Report

Final Report


Some Initial Questions and Answers


Part I: Finding Federal Records

Part II: Agency Information and Services

Part III: Personal Medical Records

Part IV: Using the ACHRE Collection as a Place to Start

Part I: Finding Federal Records

Finding the most general information about the activities of the federal government can be as easy as picking up the telephone or looking in a reference book, but those approaches do not provide the detail necessary to understanding how a program operates or why it does what it does. Finding information like this requires research, and research in government documents may require time and effort. The government's records are stored in a sprawling, decentralized, and sometimes haphazard system, and particular records are often hard to locate. It may be difficult simply to determine whether the records still exist. Federal records laws and rules provide for the periodic review and destruction of certain categories of records. However, the Committee found that the documents that recorded the destructions of other documents were themselves often later destroyed. Thus, it is often difficult to know for certain whether particular documents have been destroyed or are simply hard to locate.

This part of the Citizen's Guide provides information that will allow the researcher to focus more quickly on where the desired information may be or, that being determined, how to go about retrieving it.

Types and Sources of Federal Information

Although there are many ways to categorize the types of information citizens seek, the one that will have the most profound effect on what to look for and where to look for it is whether the citizen is interested in records of individual experience or in program records. Records of individual experience are those that document the history of a particular person--medical records, personnel records, tax returns, memberships, and so forth--and are usually kept for the private use of that person and the institution whose relationship they record. Such records will only rarely include information about a program in which the individual participates. For example, an individual's medical records will not likely contain information on the government program that funded the medical research or the ethical guidelines applicable to the use of human subjects in the program.

Program records, on the other hand, document the purposes, organization, staffing, and funding of an activity--minutes, proceedings, memorandums, proposals, contracts, and so forth--and are likely to be available to the public in some form. Such records will only rarely contain information about individuals. For example, agency records on a biomedical research program will not contain the names of the patients involved in it or their medical histories.

As is obvious from these descriptions, records of individual experiences and program records hold very different types of information.[1] The significance for the researcher is that the two types of records are kept in different places, and his or her approach to finding the information must reflect this fact. For example, if information about the physical condition and treatment of an individual is what is wanted--that is, medical facts--a search for medical records is likely to be more useful than a search for records of experiments. Medical information about the condition and treatment of experimental subjects is generally contained in medical records and not in the scientific records of experiments.[2] On the other hand, information about a study in which citizens participated is unlikely to be found in their medical records, but in the investigator's records and those of his institution and the study's sponsors.

Further information on finding program records, which are generally publicly available in large repositories, may be found in the remainder of part I and in parts II and IV. Those sections also provide information on government-held records of personal experience. For information on finding medical records, see part III.

Aids for Focusing Research

Because the federal government is vast, it is vitally important to identify as quickly as possible the government components whose records may contain the needed information; as will be discussed in the section below on the National Archives, that understanding is also important to using the records once they are found. Unfortunately, one of the things that the Advisory Committee learned in our research is that many government agencies do not have complete information on all the programs they sponsored through the years or on the records that were created or preserved or where they are located. And, furthermore, there is no central, comprehensive source of information for the history of the federal government: Even the collections of the National Archives do not reflect the full and complete history of the government and its programs. In some cases extensive research was required to discover or to understand the histories of certain parts of the agencies in order to identify the organizational components whose work was potentially relevant to the Advisory Committee's research. Only then could the search for records begin.

Fortunately, however, much unearthing of the histories of government organizations and locating of pertinent records has been done by agency personnel and Advisory Committee staff. The fruits of these efforts are available in three resources that may assist the citizen researcher in finding agency information. First, the relevant organizational components; the location, classification, and review of their records; and what records were never located are all described in great detail on an agency-by-agency basis in the supplemental volume, Sources and Documentation. This volume serves as an excellent guide for those doing their own research.[3] The second is the ACHRE collection itself; as explained in more detail in part IV below, most records in the ACHRE collection can be traced to the agency collection and repository from which they came. The third is the February 1995 Department of Energy publication, Human Radiation Experiments: The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records and its July 1995 supplements (see part II, below).[4] This work describes in considerable detail many relevant DOE record collections that are located at various repositories in the Washington, D.C., area and the national laboratories around the nation (see part II, below, for further information about the laboratories). We note that, in addition to resources created during the life of the Committee, agencies may have created other guides to agency history and records collections. See, for example, "A Guide To Resources on the History of the Food and Drug Administration," Food and Drug Administration, History Office.

Where Federal Records Are

Unless they have been lost or destroyed, almost all federal records[5] created since the founding of the Republic are in agency files, stored at a federal records center, or preserved in the National Archives.[6] Generally, agencies are required to transfer to the National Archives records that are of sufficient historical or other value to warrant preservation. Documents are transferred when they are thirty years old or, regardless of age, when the originating agency no longer needs them for its regular business and will be satisfied accessing them through the National Archives.

In actual practice, few, if any, agencies have fully complied with these requirements. Most records are still under the control of the agencies that created them, though some are stored with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Even for quite old records, therefore, the citizen will often find it necessary to look beyond the National Archives into the federal record centers and the agencies. The use of these three repositories is described below; further information on the agencies is contained in part II.

National Archives


NARA does not refile the records it receives according to some grand theoretical scheme but, rather, preserves them in as close to their original order as is practical, arranging them according to provenance.7 This means that the structure and organization of records in the National Archives reflects the structure and organization of the office that created them, using the same divisions and titles that were used by the office originally. For this reason, all records of an individual agency--or in the cases of very large agencies such as the military services, the records of various commands, headquarters, and other major organizational units--are placed by the National Archives in a separate record group with a distinctive title and number. The approximately 475 record groups at the National Archives vary in size from less than 100 cubic feet to tens of thousands of feet. Record groups are divided into subdivisions called entries that often hold the records of a single division, department, bureau, or office. The access tool generally used to find basic information in a record group (e.g., brief descriptions of individual entries) is the finding aid created by the National Archives. Not all record groups have finding aids, however, and some older ones have not been kept up to date. The archivists who work with the record groups are often an invaluable source of information as well.


The National Archives is the one repository holding agency records specifically charged with accommodating the public. In addition to a staff of professional archivists, the Archives provide large research rooms, copiers, and complete access to unclassified and declassified collections.

The National Archives has two major public facilities in the Washington area: the National Archives, Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., and the National Archives at College Park ("Archives II"), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland 20740-6001. (Telephone 202-501-5400 to request reference help, or write Reference Services Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 20408.) Research hours at both the downtown Washington and College Park facilities are 8:45 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday and Wednesday; and 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, except federal holidays.

Records that are generated by regional offices are maintained in regional archives:

Anchorage, Alaska: 654 W. 3rd Avenue, 99501; 907-271-2441

Chicago, Illinois: 7358 S. Pulaski Road, 60629; 312-581-7816

Denver, Colorado: Building 48, Denver Federal Center, 80225;


East Point, Georgia: 1557 St. Joseph Avenue, 30344; 404-763-7477

Fort Worth, Texas: 501 W. Felix Street, 76115; 817-334-5525

Kansas City, Missouri: 2312 E. Bannister Road, 64131; 816-926-6272

Laguna Niguel, California: 24000 Avila Road, 92677; 714-643-4241

New York, New York: 201 Varick Street, 10014; 212-337-1300

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 9th and Market Streets, 19107;


San Bruno, California: 1000 Commodore Drive, 94066; 415-876-9018

Seattle, Washington: 6125 Sand Point Way N.E., 98115; 206-526-6507

Waltham, Massachusetts: 380 Trapelo Road, 02154; 617-647-8100

For Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act requests, speak with the archivists who work with the record group concerned, or write: Office of the National Archives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 20408; telephone 202-501-5300. For further information see the section on Rights and Restrictions on Access to Information, below.

Federal Records Centers

When an agency determines that it no longer needs to house a group of records it can transfer them to a federal records center in its geographical area. Federal records centers have been established solely to assist the agencies in the storage and processing of their records. There is no requirement that any agency transfer its records to a records center. Although the records centers are managed by NARA, the agencies retain legal custody and control of the records.


Records held in federal records centers are also organized into record groups (using the same titles and numbers as at the National Archives), but are not further broken down into entries. Instead, a record group at a records center consists simply of a series of accessions, the shipments of records added to it. Record groups may contain from a few to thousands of accessions, and an individual accession may hold one to many hundreds of boxes of records. Unfortunately, there are no archivists or finding aids at federal records centers to assist the public. The only means of determining what is in a record group is by examining the Standard Form 135 (SF-135) prepared by the agency for each individual shipment. These forms contain a great deal of information, including the accession number, name and address of the office shipping the records, point of contact, security classification of the records, quantity of records in cubic feet, and a description of the records that often includes a folder listing.[8] The examination of SF-135s can be a very tedious process, for they may total many thousands of pages.


The public does not have free access to records at a federal records center, not even to completely unclassified or declassified accessions. Permission first must be obtained from the agency that owns the records, and this can be a time-consuming process. Personnel at the federal records centers will provide information on who should be contacted at an agency about obtaining such permission.

The one federal records center in the Washington, D.C., area is the Washington National Records Center, 4205 Suitland Road, Suitland, Maryland 20409; telephone 301-763-7000. The hours are 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday except federal holidays. There are thirteen regional federal records centers, which hold records generated by federal offices in that particular geographical region of the nation. Many, but not all, are located in the same place as the regional National Archives:

Bayonne, New Jersey: Building 22, Military Ocean Terminal, 07002;


Chicago, Illinois: 7358 S. Pulaski Road, 60629; 312-352-0164

Dayton, Ohio: 3150 Springboro Road, 45439; 513-225-2878

Denver, Colorado: Building 48, Denver Federal Center, 80225; 303-236-0804

East Point, Georgia: 1557 St. Joseph Avenue, 30344; 404-763-7476

Fort Worth, Texas: Building 1, Fort Worth Federal Center, 76115; 817-334-5515

Kansas City, Missouri: 2312 E. Bannister Road, 64131; 816-926-7271

Laguna Niguel, California: 24000 Avila Road, 92677; 714-643-4420

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 5000 Wissahickon Avenue, 19144; 215-951-5588

San Bruno, California: 1000 Commodore Drive, 94600; 415-876-9015

Seattle, Washington: 6125 Sand Point Way N.E., 98115; 206-526-6501

St. Louis, Missouri: National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, 63132; 314-263-7201

Waltham, Massachusetts: 380 Trapelo Road, 02154; 617-647-8745

FOIA requests for records in the custody of the federal records centers must be submitted to the federal agency that transferred the records to the federal records center. Records center personnel will provide addresses and contacts. For further information, see the section "Access to Information: Rights and Restrictions," below.

Records Still Held by Agencies

Several agencies retain great volumes of records that have never been sent to the National Archives or a federal records center. Such records may be stored at any number of places, including internal record storage facilities and history offices. With a few exceptions, these collections are generally less well organized and described than those at the National Archives or federal records centers. Furthermore, most agencies have only a limited ability to accommodate researchers. The names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the locations where the agencies store records are available in part II, below.

Access to Information: Rights and Restrictions

This section addresses some government policies that control access to information--on privacy, freedom of information, and national security classification--and some of a citizen's rights to information and how to exercise them.

Privacy and Freedom of Information

The Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)[9] are the most critical components of the legal framework that supports public access to federal records. The Privacy Act defines certain types of information as privileged to the individual, and during his or her lifetime it prevents their public dissemination or their use for purposes other than those originally authorizing their collection. This means, for example, that one agency may not share personal information about citizens with another government agency, and it means that one person may not have access to such information about any other person without authorization. This protection of privacy extends to records in the National Archives as well. The Freedom of Information Act guarantees, with some categories of exceptions, that all records created by the executive branch of the federal government are available to citizens. Among those exemptions are a privacy clause that broadens the scope of the Privacy Act by extending protection to personnel and medical files by category rather than limiting protection to the lifetime of individuals, and a national defense and foreign policy clause that precludes one from obtaining certain classified information under FOIA.

The next two sections discuss the effect of these laws on obtaining information based on the names of individuals, and the procedures and requirements for making Freedom of Information Act Requests.

Name Searches

Access by citizens to federal records that are retrievable by the names of individuals or other personal information are controlled by the Privacy Act and by the privacy clause of the Freedom of Information Act. The Privacy Act restricts access to information contained in what are called Privacy Act systems of records, records arranged by the names of individuals or other personal information. In general, during an individual's lifetime, records retrieved by the use of personal information are available only to that person or with his or her authority,[10] although redacted copies of such documents--that is, copies from which private information has been removed--may be available if the records are retrievable in some other way.[11]had been retrieved by the name of a principal investigator. If, therefore, a citizen is interested in obtaining records that concern him or her or, with the appropriate authority, those that concern a close relative, there should be no legal restrictions on access; to the extent, however, that a citizen wishes more information about other individuals who are mentioned in those records, there may be considerable difficulty. In such cases one would probably have greater success identifying the program in which he or she participated, determining where the records of that program are housed, and extracting information from those records.

FOIA Requests

In general, the Freedom of Information Act requires that the individual[12] make inquiry in writing[13] directly to the appropriate agency, in conformity with the established procedures of the agency, and that agreement on the payment or inapplicability of fees is reached between the requester and the agency. The first requirement usually is understood to include identification of the records in which the information is to be found. Agencies are not required to do research for the citizen but only to conduct "reasonable searches" of their records in an attempt to meet the request.[14] The second requirement recognizes that different agencies may have different procedures for handling public inquiry.[15] The third requirement permits the agency to determine before accepting the request that the requestor will pay all the applicable fees or, in the alternative, that there are valid grounds for waiving the fees.[16]

Once an agency has accepted a FOIA request, the law establishes very short periods of time for the agency to respond. If the request is accepted, the agency is obligated to decide within ten working days of acceptance whether or not it will provide the information within a reasonable length of time,[17] and if the request is denied and an appeal is made, it must provide a response within twenty working days. In actual practice, however, agencies rarely meet these time limits. Depending on the backlog of requests, the number of other agencies that must be contacted, and other factors, a FOIA can take one to five years to process.

Agencies are most likely to reproduce and mail copies of records to requesters, but they are not required to do so and are permitted to provide access to the records at a central location (see also the information on the FOIA reading rooms and offices at the agencies in Part II).

If an agency denies a request in whole or in part, the requester then has the right to make one administrative appeal. If after these the requester is still not satisfied, the only recourse is federal court.

Classified Records

There is a vast number of records at the National Archives, in the federal records centers, and at the agencies that are still classified and therefore unavailable to the public. The government is obliged by executive order to review its records periodically for declassification, but citizens may request a review on their own initiative. Submitting a request, of course, does not guarantee that the records will be declassified either in whole or in part. The government authorities conducting the review may conclude that the documents should remain classified.

There are three methods under which the public can request that documents at the National Archives be reviewed for declassification. The first is under FOIA, and the second is under the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) provisions of Executive Order 12958 of April 17, 1995.[18] Under both methods, a request is submitted to the National Archives (rather than to the agency that generated the records), whose archivists will provide information on how the request should be handled further. The third method for requesting declassification is under the Special Declassification Review procedure. This informal procedure, which is only applicable to records at the National Archives, is much quicker than either FOIA or MDR, but there are some records--intelligence records, for example--that cannot be reviewed in this way. The archivists working with the records should be consulted to determine whether a Special Declassification Review may be used.

To access classified collections at federal records centers or agencies, either a FOIA or an MDR request must be submitted to the agency. Classified records that turn up in the course of a document search are sent through declassification review. There is no Special Declassification Review procedure at federal records centers or agencies.