How I obtained documents from The American Secret Archives

How I obtained documents from The American Secret Archives

In 1996 I was fellow of the World Press Institute in Saint Paul, MN. There were nine of us in the group, from all over the world, and I was the only Bulgarian. It was the first time I had set foot in America, so, naturally, I was excited.

By Alexenia Dimitrova24 Hours DailySofia, BulgariaOne morning at the beginning of October 1996, a month before the end of my stay, I stopped off on my way to the Institute and bought a paper, as I did every day. Honestly at a time when I hadn’t seen my 2-year-old daughter for several months, the local issues it dealt with were not top of my list of concerns, but it was better than nothing. But this time something caught my eye.

It was an article about an American student who had driven the FBI mad, flooding their offices with letters demanding documents from their secret files. He had sent over 900 requests for dossiers kept by the Bureau on some of the most famous characters from America’s recent history.

His name was Michael Ravnitzky. “Not a very common name,” I thought, reckoning I wouldn’t have too much trouble finding him in the telephone directory.

I rang him as soon as I had his number. I told him I was a journalist from the Bulgarian newspaper 24 Hours Daily staying for four months in the USA. I also explained to him that in the former communist states, the records of the secret police had become one of the hottest topics of discussion since the collapse of communism. I asked Mike for an interview, and he agreed.

To my surprise, he turned out to be a skinny young law student from the local university. He told me that, to date, he had asked the FBI for the dossiers of 900 famous Americans. These included politicians, sportsmen and women, and Hollywood stars; names such as Isaac Asimov, George Gershwin, Aristotle Onassis, Johnny Weismuller, Alfred Hitchcock, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, Isadora Duncan, Sonja Henie, and Marilyn Monroe. There were also some foreigners, among them Leon Trotsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Enrico Caruso, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. “Some people collect hats, other people collect badges. I collect files”, said Mike. He told me that these dossiers had been compiled during the so-called Hoover Era. Hoover was one of the most famous chiefs of the FBI, heading the Bureau for almost 40 years, and giving his name to the FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the centre of Washington.

As our conversation ended, I asked Mike if anyone could ask the FBI and other American secret institutions for files. “Oh, sure,” he said, “Why don’t you try?” He told me that according to the American Freedom of Information Act, any person had the right to see documents from almost every American institution, provided that this didn’t violate the National Security and Privacy Act.
 Mike had filled me with enthusiasm, and I decided to try. All I needed was to see the letter Mike used to get what he wanted from the officials at the FBI. He had read my mind, and was already reaching into his bag for a copy. I still have that valuable letter, a request from Michael for Leon Trotsky’s file. He explained to me that I could use his template to ask for the dossiers on anyone I liked, so long as they were dead.

Within hours of leaving Michael, I was seized with doubts. In my mind, the FBI and CIA were ferocious symbols of Cold War power. Did I really need to get involved with the American Secret Services? What would be the result? Could there be negative consequences for my family and me? And would anyone pay attention to a lowly journalist from the former Eastern Block? My initial enthusiasm melted like the snow in March.

Two years passed. In 1998 I was in the USA again, this time on an investigative journalism placement at the University of Columbia, Missouri. Days after my arrival I called Mike, and was interested to hear how far his passion for the secret files had taken him. “They’re sick of me at the FBI,” he told me. “They just have to hear my name and they get all nervous. How did it go with you?” he asked. “I didn’t do it,” I admitted. “I don’t see why anyone would pay me any attention.” Michael scolded me. He insisted I should not give the US authorities a moment’s peace: “Ask them, and then keep on asking, again and again.”

I realised he was right. I also knew what my real reason was for holding off: I was deeply worried about how news of my activities would be received in Bulgaria. Even nine years after the collapse of communism, my mind was not completely free of its chains. I had to admit to myself that I was ashamed of quite how frightened I felt and that I endured a fierce inner struggle during the two years after my first meeting with Michael Rav nitzky.

But he forced me to confront and analyse my fear, and, thanks to him, after our second conversation in 1998, I made a firm decision to ask for documents from the American secret archives.

I wrote my first letter on 20th October 1998. In December, I received a reply telling me my request had been noted, but had been put on a waiting list as they already had a great number of inquiries to deal with.

I had thought that the American officials must have just forgotten my letter. But no! On December 1999, a few days before Christmas, I received the first documents declassified by my request. I still remember the face of the customs inspector when brought the heavy box, which I had received from the USA. “All that excitement for nothing,” he said seeing the sheets of paper and looking at them disappointedly.

“Dear Mrs. Dimitrova: Reference your Freedom of Information Act request, postmarked November 10, 1998, for the file “Bulgaria; Intelligence Services, ZF 400015W”, registered no. 349F-99. We have conducted checks of the Automated Defense Clearance and Investigations Index and a search of the Investigative Records Repository to determine the existence of the Army Intelligence file you requested.

 “The enclosed records were located. We have completed a mandatory declassification review in accordance with Executive Order 12958. As a result of this review, the information has been sanitized, and 150 pages of records have been held back in their entirety, as the information contained in them is currently classified SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL... Signed, R. A. Nicols, Chief, Freedom of Information/Privacy Office, Defense Department.”

I hurriedly flicked through the rest of the papers, and was stunned. Here were more than 1000 pages of priceless documents from the secret American archives, declassified at my request.

I did not regret the wait. I was rewarded with the best Christmas gift I had ever received. And it really was a gift, these 1000 pages of secret papers from the American archives which, until very recently, had been available to no one, and which might never have come to light if I had not asked for them.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was proud of my professional hit. I had no doubt that I was the only Bulgarian journalist who had ever managed to officially obtain papers from the confidential U.S. intelligence archives. But my personal vanity was incomparable to what I was feeling on a far broader scale: the Cold War really was over, and the box I held in my hands was the first piece of proof. More of the documents, which were declassified by my request were from not less than 30 years ago. There were also few very recent.

I should mention that my research into the American secret archives would never have been possible, if I had not earlier mustered enough courage to demand the declassification of Bulgarian State Security files, and had the professional experience, between 1989 and 1998, of digging through them for hours on end. I do the same from time to time till now.

After receiving the documents from the American Secret archives I started reading them. Believe me - this is not easy task – it is hard work which wants patience!!! I should dig in every detail, under every letter even blackened out on a language that is not my mother one. I should analyse everything, to catch the most interesting things and to structure them on a way appropriate for the readers of 24 Hours Daily. I published the series in 8 numbers of 24 Hours Daily between April and July 2002. All of them were published with copies of original documents.

Here I present only one of the parts - An Emigrant reveals the Secret meeting places of State Security in Sofia.

The other seven were:
1. The State Security agents in Sunny Beach2. Hotel in Pleven full of bug devices3. The State Security implanted Bulgarian Emigrants abroad (Including a famous Bulgarian Singer)4. USSR sponsored a kidnapped ring (There were 4 Bulgarians in it)5. Bulgarian Drivers spied in Germany, translators – in the US Embassy in Sofia.6. George Dimitrov and Vassil Kolarov - agents of 2 Intelligence services.7. How Bulgarian State Security sent to the bottom a ship in Istanbul.

Later on my interest went deep and I started to ask new and new documents from the American Secret Archives to be declassified. Sometimes they answered me that the documents should still remain secret. I have no other choice except to believe and to wait for the time when I would receive them.

I still continue to send letters to the American Secret Archives asking documents from the Cold War Era. Obviously the American Freedom of Information act works.