FOIA follies, part 2: ‘Lost’ mail, an old Steve Martin bit, and the interview with Carl Knox’s former secretary

Photo credit: Photo by Anna Land on Unsplash

Sixty-nine years. As of tomorrow, that’s how long it’s been since Ron Tammen held a study session with Dick Titus, fetched some clean sheets from Mrs. Todhunter, headed to the Delt House for song practice, walked home in the snow with two fellow Delts, and promptly disappeared forever from the campus of Miami University. I wish I were releasing something groundbreaking for this year’s anniversary post—I really do. The unredacted names from those two CIA memos (memos 1 and 2) or the full interview with Carl Knox’s former secretary would’ve been peachy. 

Alas, I cannot. Things are moving along—not at the pace I’d like them to, but progressing nonetheless. I need to respect the process and chillax. Hopefully, we’ll have some news to report soon, good or bad (preferably the former).

In the meantime, I’d like to discuss several phenomena that I’ve noticed in my 12 years of FOIAing for Tammen-related documents, especially lately. For the newcomers to the group, FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that allows anyone, including non–U.S. citizens, to submit requests for government documents. Most states, including Ohio, also have public records laws, often referred to as sunshine laws, that allow a person to request documents from state agencies and institutions. In Ohio, you don’t even need to be a resident.

FOIA and Ohio’s sunshine laws have become two of my trustiest tools for making the discoveries I’ve made concerning Ron Tammen’s case. My third tool is, of course, people—especially people who either knew Ron or were at Miami when he disappeared. In the number four spot is my ridiculously hard head, which, as I’ve mentioned before on this website, doesn’t take no for an answer terribly well, especially from certain powers that be.

Before we proceed with my latest observations, here’s a protip for anyone considering submitting a public records request to a state or federal agency: The instant you decide to become a submitter of records requests, you should prepare for the excuses, because, guuuuurl, you’re going to hear a lot of them. The most common is the “we looked, but we couldn’t find anything” excuse, which is a tough one to argue with if you happen to be a person who takes other people at their word. (Protip #2: If you’re going to become a submitter of records requests, you’ll need to stop being that type of person.) 

By far, the most creative excuse was dreamed up by the CIA. In 2016, I’d submitted a request asking them to lift the redactions from a July 1952 memo listing study group members for the ARTICHOKE program. (Unbelievably, the names are still being treated as if they’re top secret even though the memo is about to turn 70 years old, ARTICHOKE was shut down decades ago, and everyone involved has long since died.) After nearly three years of hearing nothing, a representative wrote to me and said that they looked high and low, but they only have the whited-out version of that memo. They can’t find the “full-text version.” I let out a scornful laugh and appealed their response. In June 2021, I was told that I can look forward to their ruling by an estimated date of December 8, 2022, which is very specific and an ETA in which I’m 100% skeptical. (See protip #2.) This little escapade also illustrates how a person can fritter their life away submitting FOIA requests to recalcitrant agencies—so much so that I will occasionally hear myself asking the universe, “Really? Is this my purpose? Is this why I’m here?” As of this writing, the universe’s response has been “’Fraid so. We good?”

What follows are two of the more innovative excuses I’ve received in recent months by state and federal officials, along with what I’ve done or intend to do in response. Also, if FOIA isn’t your passion, and you’re thinking of signing off right about now, I encourage you to hang on until excuse #2, or at least scroll there immediately. The reason is that I’ve further narrowed the timeframe when I think Carl Knox’s former secretary was interviewed by Miami University officials, and I’ll be telling you all about that. (It’s very cool and potentially huge.) 

Excuse #1: It was lost in the mail

I’ll start by asking this question: Have you ever mailed a letter to someone and it never made it to its destination? 

I don’t mean that it arrived late. Good Lord, we all know what that’s like. Do you remember December 2020? As a result of the pandemic, combined with the postmaster general’s *ahem* whimsical decision to give the heave ho to over 700 mail sorting machines in one fell swoop, it took months for a letter that I’d put in a collection box in northeast Ohio to make its way to the Seattle region. I’m not talking about those issues. I’m talking about mail that’s never arrived. I know it happens sometimes, but has it ever happened to you personally? Conversely, have you ever been anxiously waiting on a piece of mail that never came?

I honestly can’t think of a single time when either of the above has happened to me—at least not when I’m dealing with normal people and typical places of business. But when I’m doing business with the FBI and CIA? Well, apparently, it happens on a regular basis. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe.

Let’s first consider some statistics. I don’t trust the numbers that are pushed by businesses that compete with the U.S. Postal Service, so I won’t be repeating them here. I happen to support the USPS and I feel that their willingness to transport a first class letter anywhere in the country, including U.S. territories and military bases, for 58 measly cents is the best bargain on Planet Earth. 

The USPS Office of the Inspector General (IG) is the entity that keeps a watchful eye on the USPS’s service performance and they’ve produced nearly 200 reports on how things are going from year to year and region to region—way more information than we’re in need of here. From what I can tell, the question they’re most focused on isn’t so much IF the mail will arrive but WHEN, and the IG wants to make sure it’s arriving on time. In February 2022, the average amount of time it took for a first class letter to arrive at its destination was 2.7 days, which is incredible when you think of the size of this country and, again, the surprisingly little amount of money that they’re asking from us in return.

But strange things can and do happen. Mail can be damaged, stolen, and, OK, lost. In those instances, there’s a process in place for finding mail that’s gone AWOL, which is to go through the USPS’s Mail Recovery Center (MRC)—aka its “lost and found.”

According to the IG’s webpage, “In Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, the MRC received 67 million items from post offices and other facilities around the country. While that’s a large number, it’s a small fraction of a percent of the 142 billion mailpieces the Postal Service delivered that same year.” If you do the actual math [i.e., (67 million ÷ 142 billion) X 100], you’ll find that the “small fraction of a percent” is .047 percent, or roughly 1/2 of 0.1 percent, of wayward mail was forwarded to the MRC in FY 2019. And that doesn’t take into consideration the likelihood that some of the mail was eventually united with its intended recipient.

Therefore, despite some of the cranky comments on the IG’s website, I think we can say with confidence that lost mail isn’t a common occurrence.

Let’s now enter the bizarro world of the CIA and FBI. In the past five months, I can point to four instances in which they’ve subtly pointed the finger at the postal service for their own lack of responsiveness to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) request. It made no difference whether the mail was coming or going—both directions posed problems according to the two agencies. Moreover, each piece of mail that had presumably been lost had to do with one of the more formidable requests in our arsenal regarding the Ronald Tammen case. They never affected the boring, trivial stuff. I mean…what are the odds?

The CIA’s excuse: We never got your letter.

Protip #3For anyone planning to submit a FOIA or MDR request to the CIA, and you prefer to go the technological route, it’s advisable to get out your leg warmers and Duran Duran cassettes, because, my friend, you’ll be using an innovation that was all the rage when the world was 40 years younger. It’s called the Facsimile machine, or Fax for short, and you can reach the CIA’s Fax machine at 703-613-3007. Faxing can be annoying, tedious, and, if you don’t have a machine of your own or a landline to connect it to, expensive. (OK, I’m now being told that there are some computer apps that let you send a Fax online and, apparently, some people are still big believers in the Fax, but I don’t know who those people are. If you’ve sent a Fax in the past 15 years and remember it as a positive experience, feel free to weigh in on this controversy in the comments section.) 

In addition to Faxing, the CIA does offer the ability to send a FOIA or MDR request through their website, but only if you don’t plan to send attachments as back-up. In my experience, seeking random records from the CIA without support documentation is a losing proposition from the get-go. You’re being set up for failure. Unless you’re seeking documents that have been widely publicized and made readily available to the public—like the surviving MKULTRA documents, for example—I wouldn’t bother going this route.

That leaves the U.S. mail, which is how I send my requests to the CIA, as did my research associate recently. Here’s where they ask you to send them:

Information and Privacy Coordinator
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C. 20505

Given how simple the CIA’s mailing address is, it’s perplexing that so much can go awry with their incoming mail. There’s no street address to botch, no room number to accidentally transpose—just someone’s high-level job title, the agency name, and their exclusive ZIP code, 20505, in Washington, D.C. (Actually, the CIA’s headquarters is in McLean, VA—in a subsection referred to as Langley, VA—which is about 10 miles from D.C., but whatever.)

But, again, strange things can and do happen, even at the CIA. 

In my case, it happened after I’d discovered the four documents in the CIA’s MKULTRA collection (documents 123, and 4) in which I believe St. Clair Switzer was either the author or the author’s accomplice. In August 2021, I submitted a FOIA request asking that the names in those documents be declassified. Under normal circumstances, generally within a couple weeks, federal agencies will send an acknowledgment of your request along with an assigned FOIA number, to help in tracking your request. But this is the CIA we’re talking about, and they’ve always marched to a different drumbeat. But then August rolled into September, and September into October, and soon we were closing in on Thanksgiving, and I still hadn’t heard from them. 

When I called and asked for the status of my request, the FOIA representative told me that she was unable to find any record of it, as if all my efforts were just imaginings in my brain. I had to do it all over again. The second time, it worked (it always does), and our wait continues, but that little antic bought them three extra months, and, had I not checked when I did, it could have been a lot longer. (Protip #4: don’t make the same mistake I did and pop your request in the mail like a birthday card to your Aunt Trish. Always obtain a tracking slip and double check to make sure the envelope was delivered and, better yet, signed for.) 

The second case pertains to a colleague of mine who’d submitted a pretty important (read: REALLY important) records request to the CIA that has to do with the Ron Tammen case. I can’t say a lot about it, because I don’t want to give anything or anyone away. But the nuts-and-bolts of it is that he’d submitted a request to them in 2018, and last month—over three years later—my colleague was informed that they’d never received it. Don’t fret, my colleague is handling it. But the ”we never got it” excuse seems rather, oh, I don’t know, habitual?

The FBI’s excuse: Didn’t you get our letter?

OK, so that was pretty weird, but things are about to get weirder. It involves the FBI, which I’d FOIA’d twice to get a handle on how often people submitted expungement requests due to the Privacy Act versus a court order. I wanted to figure out which group Ron Tammen fell into. (If you’re new to the site and have no idea what we’re talking about, you can catch up here.) 

For openers, when you submit a FOIA request to the FBI on the topic of early expungements—whether it’s due to a court order or the Privacy Act—they’ll send all future communications via the mail instead of email. They seem have more faith in the mail when protecting people’s privacy…which is surprising, considering how frequently their mail appears to get lost.

This past July, I’d submitted two separate FOIA requests through the FBI’s online system, at efoia.fbi.gov. One request was for all paperwork having to do with early fingerprint expungement requests between January 1, 1999, and June 30, 2002, due to a court order and the other request was for the exact same thing, only due to the Privacy Act. On August 4, 2021, I received an acknowledgment on the court-order-related request, and on August 27, 2021, I received a letter in the mail stating that they’d searched “the places reasonably expected to have records” for early expungements due to a court order, and turned up nothing. I hadn’t yet received a letter regarding expungements due to the Privacy Act, and considered it a good sign, since that’s the category that I think applies to Ron.

By November, I’d still received nothing from them about my Privacy Act request, and I was beginning to wonder what had happened. I emailed them sometime between November 11 and November 29. Here’s an approximation of that email conversation:

Me: Hi, on July 29, I’d submitted two FOIA requests that dealt with early fingerprint expungements. The first had to do with court ordered-expungements, and the second had to do with the Privacy Act. I’ve only received a response for the one on court orders. I haven’t received anything for the request on Privacy Act expungements.

Public information officer: We mailed it to you.

Me: Really? Because I only received a response on court orders. I haven’t received anything on the Privacy Act. Can you please mail it to me again?

PIO: Oh, sorry. I misunderstood. We thought they were the same request.

Me: Nope, nope. Two different requests, filed separately.

They subsequently mailed an acknowledgment on November 29, 2021, and then, on December 14, 2021, they mailed their response, which was that they couldn’t find anything. But the email conversation was memorably bizarre.

You know what else is bizarre? That email conversation no longer exists. I’ve spent hours looking for it. After that exchange, I’d quoted the information officer’s comments on the Good Man Score Card, but removed them after I’d received their acknowledgment. This past weekend, as I was writing this post, I was looking for the conversation in my emails, and it’s not there. I’m not going to claim that someone from the FBI was somehow able to remove an entire email conversation from my gmail account. I’m just not. I’m human and, admittedly, I err sometimes. But to delete an entire conversation consisting of four or five emails between myself and a representative of the FBI? Well, that would be a first for me.

do have the emails to back up the second example, however. On New Year’s Day, 2022, I’d submitted a FOIA request that was a lot more specific than the July 2021 request. I’d stumbled on the FBI’s manual for FOIPA officers (FOIPA stands for Freedom of Information and Privacy Act) from around the time that they’d expunged Ron’s fingerprints, and it described the specific paperwork that was involved with fingerprint expungement requests due to the Privacy Act. In my new FOIA request, I was seeking those specific papers.

By March 30, I still hadn’t heard from them, so I emailed them and asked for a status update.

Here’s what they wrote:

Thank you for contacting foipaquestions@fbi.gov. Correspondence in response to your request, FOIA 1510466-000, was mailed via standard mail on December, 14, 2021.

Yes, that’s right. I inquired about a request I’d submitted on January 1, 2022, and they let me know that they’d responded to it two weeks prior to that date, on December 14, 2021, which would be stupendous customer service if we were actually talking about the same request.

I let them know that they were referring to the former request from July 2021. “This is a new request,” I said.

Here’s what they said in response:

Thank you for contacting foipaquestions@fbi.gov in reference to your Freedom of Information Act/Privacy (FOIPA) request. As requested, the FOIPA Request Number you have been assigned is 1514356-000. Correspondence for the request was mailed via standard mail on January 6, 2022.

Again with the “we mailed it.” But I hadn’t received it. And here we are, well into April, and I STILL haven’t received it. In fact, I feel I can confidently state that, even if I were to live to be 100, I would never, ever receive whatever they claim to have put in the “standard mail” on January 6, 2022. I asked them to send it again, and they did, and of course, this time it reached my mailbox just fine (it always does), although the letter I received was dated January 7, 2022. 

Here’s the problem I have with their “we mailed it” excuse: according to the FBI’s response—the one that I received on their so-called second try—they weren’t able to locate any records responsive to my request, which means that I need to submit an appeal. But the FBI places a 90-day time limit on the appeal process. Because the letter is dated January 7, 2022, that time limit had already passed by the time I received it. Of course, I’ll make sure the Department of Justice understands that I never received the FBI’s “first” letter, but is this a way that the FBI treats FOIA requests they’re not particularly thrilled about? 

Excuse #2: We forget

Anyone who was a near-adult in the 1970s knows how big Steve Martin was back then. He’s big again now, but this was different. Whenever Steve Martin was on Saturday Night Live, which was often, it was an event not to be missed. 

In addition to all of his other iconic phrases (the “Excuuuuuuse Me’s!” and whatnot), he had this bit that he’d do that my high-schooler brain found brilliant and hilarious. It was a two-word phrase he’d come up with that could get a person out of any jam: “I forgot!” 

“I forgot that armed robbery was a crime, officer!” he’d joke.

Well, weirdly enough, that’s the excuse that I feel Miami officials are giving me regarding the three Oral History Project (OHP) videotapes that were never posted on the university’s bicentennial website.

As you may recall, I recently submitted a public records request pointing them to the second-to-last line in their 2008 OHP progress report that stated that three recordings weren’t posted to their bicentennial website “for miscellaneous reasons.” I asked them to send those three videotapes to me or, if they no longer exist, to send me the forms documenting their destruction, per the Office of General Counsel’s (OGC) record retention protocol. A few weeks later, as part of the OGC’s response, they informed me that they’d asked several OHP representatives and “none of the individuals remember anything about those recordings.”

I subsequently filed a complaint with the Ohio Court of Claims, and we’re now gearing up for mediation, which is a legal proceeding at which I intend to present arguments countering their response. I’ll be keeping those arguments to myself for now.

With that said, I do have some news to share—something that I figured out as I was preparing my arguments. And you guys? I think I know when one of the three missing interviews took place. What’s more, I believe that this particular missing interview was with Carl Knox’s former secretary. 

Are you ready? 

I think the interview with Carl Knox’s former secretary happened during the spring semester of 2007, probably sometime between February and May. 

Here’s why I think this: it has to do with an OHP report that was written in May 2007. In that report, under the header “Accomplishments of Spring Semester 2007,” representatives of the Oral History Project had written the following paragraph:

Eight story circles and two interviews were conducted during the semester. These included the Digital Writing Collaborative, WMUB management/announcers, Student Affairs staff, 1970s faculty (different factions), and early African-American faculty. The sessions generally lasted an hour or two and were conducted in Oxford.

I consulted a chronological listing that I’d created of all the OHP recordings that had been posted online and found the ones that were produced during the spring semester of 2007, from January through May. (Most interviews were conducted in the summer, during the annual alumni reunion, when it was more convenient to schedule individuals who lived outside of Oxford.) 

Consistent with the report, I’ve counted eight story circles, which include all of the story circles that were named, plus Executive Assistants in the 1960s-90s, and three “different factions” of 1970s faculty (Political Activists, Part 1; Department of History Faculty; and Political Activists, Part 2). At first, the timing of the WMUB story circle confused me, since the report says that it was conducted in spring 2007, but it’s actually listed on the bicentennial website as having occurred on July 1, 2008. I now believe that something had gone wrong with the 2007 WMUB tape, which is supported by the 12/2008 OHP report. That report says “Since June 2008, 23 more sessions were recorded (including one that was a repeat of an earlier one due to recording problems).”

So the story circles check out. How about the two interviews?

Currently, only one individual interview from that timeframe is posted online: that of Heanon M. Wilkins, a retired Spanish professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, director of the Educational Opportunity, and director of the Black World Studies Program. Dr. Wilkins’ interview took place on March 21, 2007. It’s the second individual interview that I believe is one of the three recordings that weren’t posted online. I also think that was the interview that someone from the university had conducted with Carl Knox’s former secretary.

Listed in blue are the spring 2007 interviews minus the WMUB recording, which had experienced technical issues. The WMUB recording, in purple, was rerecorded on July 1, 2008. Plus marks following the recording dates indicate that these recordings had been posted on the main bicentennial website as opposed to the Western College OHP website..

Now, there’s an additional complicating factor I need to address. A former Miami baseball player named Clarence Wheeler (‘32) is listed on the bicentennial website as having been interviewed on April 27, 2007. Even the title slide says that the interview happened on April 27, 2007. And if that were indeed the date that the interview had taken place, then Clarence Wheeler would have been the clear answer to the question concerning the second individual to be interviewed that spring. Clarence also lived in Hamilton, Ohio, and, as the report states, all of the interviews and story circles had taken place in Oxford. He would have been the perfect fit for that time slot. Perfect, that is, except his interview didn’t occur for another year.

Clarence Wheeler’s title slide says that the interview was conducted in 2007, when the transcript below it shows the actual date, April 27, 2008.

That’s right. If you read Clarence’s transcript or watch the first few minutes of his tape, you’ll learn that his interview had taken place on April 27, 2008, which was Clarence Wheeler’s 100th birthday. 

Um. You guys? I’m not going to claim that someone from the university had intentionally mislabeled the title slide for Clarence Wheeler’s interview to concur with the May 2007 OHP report and therefore make it appear as if his was the second interview of the spring semester that year. I’m just not. I can’t imagine that the May 2007 report was that significant, and, let’s face it, university employees are human and they can err too.

I will say this: Heanon Wilkins had lived in Oxford until his death in 2015, so it’s easy to understand why his interview could have been conducted in Oxford during the spring of 2007. Coincidentally, Carl Knox’s former secretary was living in Oxford at that time too.

9 thoughts on “FOIA follies, part 2: ‘Lost’ mail, an old Steve Martin bit, and the interview with Carl Knox’s former secretary

  1. I’ve personally never had a piece of letter mail lost, coming or going. I could attest to about 2-5 pieces of letter mail a day being destroyed in the equipment at the Cincinnati Processing Center. IIRC, a couple million pieces a day run through there. I’ll try to find a verification of that number processed. It might be much higher. In any case, mail just doesn’t get lost. The USPS processes 425 million pieces a day. I’m aware of the 34,000 letters mentioned above, and know why/what happened. But even in that bad a situation, the % of total mail is miniscule, and they were, after all, delivered.

    In 4 years of supervision, with perhaps 5000 barcoded pieces of mail every day, I determined one piece of mail was lost. And I strongly suspect, as did the customer, though she wouldn’t admit it, that it was properly delivered and then stolen. So all that said, I’m not buying what the CIA is selling.

    I encourage you to always use certified mail. Make them sign that little green card. It’s a real lie detector. Along with the green card, I’d take a physical picture of the documents I was sending. Green card, tracking number, and documents all in one picture if possible. And on the green card itself, inventory exactly what was included in the mail. That last might not pass legal muster, but it still can carry some corroborative value. But that’s how I send important mail.

    1. Thanks for your insider perspective, Stevie J! I’ve been waiting on you to weigh in on this one! Btw, yes, lesson learned. I’ll be using certified mail from now on.

    2. Also, out of all the government investigative departments, I think the post office is the one I would least like to go up against. It might take them awhile, but they will eventually hunt you and your fraud down.

  2. I’m shaking my head….no wonder Washington has so many problems! But, the Columbus area does too. An audit by the USPS Postal Inspector revealed 34,000 letters undelivered and squirreled away in a corner recently in a Columbus branch sorting location. It appears lost or undelivered mail is everywhere.

    Yes, it is hard to believe it’s been 69 years. Ron Tammen, where are you? Please show your hand.

    Good luck on your search. Only 364 days until the next missing anniversary. Sad to think it’s still an ongoing mystery.

  3. 69 years! Wow! Honestly, it doesn’t seem that long when researching Ron’s case. It’s not until one steps back with a clear mind and realizes the entire scope of the case. That’s when the length of time that’s passed actually hits.

    Haha! The mail system here in the entire Seattle region has always been out of whack! Like, for the last 25 years! No matter where you move, you always get someone else’s mail—either the next-door neighbor’s or one 4 blocks away. It might explain why some of my mail throughout the years has never arrived. As for UPS and FEDEX, don’t get me started! Just as bad, if not worse!

    And if it’s any consolation… back in 2003 when I finished my feature-length screenplay about D.B. Cooper, it was sent by certified mail with a signature request to the Copyright Office in D.C. Well, for some mysterious and strange reason, it never arrived… until two years later! Faulty mail system? Or a system of interception?! 😉

    1. Lol! Actually, we’ve been known to exchange mail/packages with neighbors too, but it only happens when the main mailman (hi Mike!) or delivery person isn’t there. We’re going to have to do something special for the 70th—I’m thinking way bigger than t-shirts a keychains. 🤔

  4. I haven’t had anything lost in the mail since the early 90s and my next door neighbor didn’t get my birthday party invitation. That said, if you want to make sure anyone can’t say they didn’t get mail (government entities, law offices, insurance companies, etc) certified mail is 100% the way to go. As for faxes, if you have a free app, fax bombing a credit card company seems to work (according to Reddit), although I suspect the FBI or CIA would be less receptive to that method. Also, electronic faxes still suck, the last time I had to do it it took 3 tries for all the info to get through, and a messenger pigeon would have been more efficient.

    1. LOL!😆 So…re: CIA…here’s something else: I’ve found that sometimes their phone number works and sometimes it doesn’t. I had to hang up and hit redial before it went through. And when I tried faxing my request, it just rang and rang and rang. I gave up.

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