…and the answer has been on page 1 of Ron’s FOIA docs this whole entire time
One of the ongoing questions of my search for what happened to Ron Tammen has been the location of the “Ident Missing Person File Room”—the string of words that had been stamped on some, though not all, of Ron’s missing person documents. We’ve known that the Ident Missing Person File Room was in room 1126 of some building, ostensibly in the Washington, D.C. region, though we didn’t know which building.
For months, I’ve been expending some serious brainpower—and not just my brainpower, but yours too—trying to come up with ways that I might discover the location of room 1126. Thanks to your creative suggestions, I’ve submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking phone directories, floor plans, key receipts, custodial routes, maintenance requests, installation orders, you name it, for some of the more likely contenders. You may recall reading blog posts in which I advanced hypotheses for the location of room 1126—first, inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and, on second thought, the Department of Justice Building.
Why would I do all of that? Because I believe room 1126 is significant to Ron’s story.
But lately, I’ve grown weary of FOIA. So much back-and-forthing with the FBI has thrown buckets of water on my inner fire. They always have the final word, and that word (or words) has been: “unable to identify records that are responsive to your request.” So I thought I’d switch up my game a little. I decided to Google what’s already out there—but not your typical, run-of-the-mill Googling. I mean level-10 Googling. I mean cracking open “Google Books” and diving into the decades-old, government-produced publications that various librarians of sundry institutions have taken the time to copy, cover to cover. And let me tell you…what’s already out there has been illuminating. If you want to get an authentic picture of how things worked back in the day of J. Edgar Hoover, it’s best to consult what the key players had written or said, preferably under oath.
Before we address what makes room 1126 so special, let’s talk about the FBI’s filing system. Honestly, from everything I’ve read, it hasn’t changed that much since Hoover ran the place. OK, yeah, sure, computers. But the overall organization of the files and the related vocabulary are the same today as when Edgar discussed them with his associates and underlings. (Did you know that that’s what he called himself informally? I feel like such an idiot, but I’ve thought of him as J. Edgar for so long that I never knew that his friends called him Edgar.)
For the most part, Edgar Hoover believed in filing everything together. In most cases, every single file representing every single investigation has been lumped together into one ginormous records system, which is referred to as the Central Records System. In Edgar’s idealistic world, everyone’s records should be treated the exact same way—whether you’re a habitual law breaker or a squeaky clean job applicant in need of a routine background check. Then as now, they commonly refer to these files as the “main files,” or the “main bureau files.”
What divides them are the classification numbers that precede every FBI case number. Missing person cases start with the number 79. Crime on the high seas begins with 45; fraud against the government is 46; and impersonation, 47. If you had the number 53 in front of your case file, you were being investigated for “excess profits on wool,” which I guess was a problem around World War I, but they don’t use that one anymore. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s not all kidnappings (7), extortion (9), and counterfeiting (55). There are respectable classifications too—like 66 (administrative matters), 67 (personnel matters), and 240 (FBI training). As of this writing, there are 281 classifications in all, which you can peruse here.
To help FBI staff locate files, they created indexes, 3” X 5” cards arranged alphabetically by subject on which pertinent case numbers were written. Let’s say you worked in the Files and Communications Division and you were asked to name check someone. You’d look up that person’s name on a card in the general index, and there, on that card, would be numbers of relevant case files to check. It gets way more complicated, with multiple indexes and cross-references, but for our purposes, the indexes helped FBI staff find pertinent case files on a given subject.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What about fingerprints?”
Fingerprint files are maintained separately from the Central Records System, as are records that are entered into the National Crime Information Center. These resources were formerly housed within the Identification Division, now the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, and are accessible to law enforcement agencies around the country. The Central Records System, on the other hand, is only accessible to FBI staff and, at least before computers, primarily staff in the Files and Communications Division, who would provide the files to other FBI staffers on a short-term loan basis.
What I’m getting at is that, under the normal system, missing person cases were filed along with everything else in the main files. If the FBI was fortunate enough to have a missing person’s fingerprints, as they did in Ron’s case, that person’s records would be filed in their fingerprint jacket in the Identification Division. And even though fingerprint jackets were maintained separately from the Central Records System, I’m guessing that the folks in Files and Communications would at least have an index card with the missing person’s name on it to help them find those records too if need be. But that’s just a guess.
What wasn’t a normal part of the FBI’s recordkeeping system was putting some of the missing person files in a special room: #1126. That was unusual.
At this point, let’s switch over to my favorite format, Q&A. Who wants to start us off?
Where was room #1126?
Haha…OK, I suppose I deserve that.
Room 1126 was in…
…wait for it…
…the Identification Building, which still stands at 2nd and D Streets SW, and is currently known as the Ford House Office Building. (Some very cool photos can be found on this web page:https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/ford-house-office-building-washington-dc/.)
The Identification Building—which was nicknamed the Ident Building—is so named because the enormous Identification Division was located there for many years. But other divisions were located there too, namely the Files and Communications Division, and later, once the FBI was computerized, the Computer Systems Division.
Why do you think the FBI would have needed a Missing Person File Room apart from the main files?
My guess? Secrecy. When Hoover was the FBI director, he and his leadership team felt the need to keep sensitive documents locked away in cabinets and special rooms, so that only a select few people would know about them or see them. I have a theory on why they might have done that for missing persons in particular, which I’ll explain a little later.
I’d heard that Hoover had kept secret files in his office. Did his associate directors and assistant directors have secret files too?
The short answer is yes.
Not long after Hoover died on May 2, 1972, the public learned about files that he kept in his office area, which was a suite consisting of nine rooms on the fifth floor of the Department of Justice building. According to Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary for over 50 years, there were several types of files housed there:
- Hoover’s personal files, which were described as personal correspondence between Hoover and people in his sphere, many famous and politically powerful. (At Hoover’s instruction, Gandy destroyed all of the personal files shortly after Hoover died.)
- Estate files, which had to do with Hoover’s house, taxes, etc.
- Hoover’s “Official and Confidential” files, which had been widely publicized in the media and were considered extremely sensitive on a range of topics.
- A category that Gandy only referred to as “special,” which were also highly confidential, and kept under “lock and key.”
Mark Felt, who is famously known as the anonymous source Deep Throat during Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting of Watergate, was responsible for taking over the Official and Confidential (OC) files after Hoover’s death. Felt oversaw the inventorying of those files, but they remained in his office until he retired in 1973. They were later placed in the Special File Room, a room set aside by the bureau for confidential files. (If you want to read Hoover’s OC files, you can do so here.)
In 1975, Felt told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations that it wasn’t just Hoover who was withholding sensitive documents. The division directors were too. Shortly before Hoover’s death, Felt had been tasked with consolidating the sensitive division files in his office. He obtained about two file cabinets’ worth, which he promptly locked up.
John P. Mohr, who oversaw the FBI’s Administrative Division and several others, said this to the subcommittee about his own secret files: “They were files that I maintained that were not in the record of the Bureau’s files, which were contacts that I had. If you are a smart investigator, and you should be one if you are going to be in this business, you should have your own sources and keep them to yourself.”
What kinds of documents did FBI officials treat as confidential?
Oh, gosh, you name it. The Special File Room held a hodge podge of records on hot-button subjects of the day. They were all indexed, so still officially part of the Central Records System. The point was to restrict access to a limited few, and out of eye shot from most everyone else, especially the majority of Files and Communications staffers.
Included were files containing graphically violent photos, national defense secrets, informants’ names, stuff on Castro, stuff on Cosa Nostra, cases affecting an FBI employee’s family, and more. Of course, if someone important was rumored to be gay, that would have made the cut. The Special File Room wasn’t especially spacious so it was considered only temporary housing for a file, though admittedly “temporary” could mean years. Division heads were periodically asked to review the files they were maintaining there and to let Files and Communications staff know when a file had lost some of its radioactivity (so to speak) so they could be returned to the main files. Speaking of radioactivity, files related to the Atomic Energy Commission were included there as well.
Back to the Missing Person File Room, why would a bunch of missing person files be kept secret?
I think I know. In the mid-1970s, Americans were learning that the FBI as a general practice held onto just about everything that anyone mailed or called in on someone—usually derogatory, rarely complimentary—even if the tipster was anonymous. (This helps explain why the Cincinnati Field Office responded to that anonymous call in 1973 to check out the employee at Welco Industries.) During another 1975 hearing (the 94th Congress was busy), members of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights voiced their displeasure over this practice. They were particularly concerned about information being held on members of Congress, however, it was emphasized that legislators are treated no differently than any other citizen.
Here’s an exchange between M. Caldwell Butler, of Virginia, and then-FBI Director Clarence Kelley concerning a made-up person named John Jones:
Mr. Butler: “Let us just take John Jones and somebody says to the Bureau there is a guy named John Jones in Boston who is nuts. What do you do with that? Can you not just throw it away, or do you have to really put it in the miscellaneous file, index it and keep it there, and then go through the purging procedure later, or does the guy lose his job if he does not file it?”
Mr. Kelley: “I am confident again that some of it is not put in the file. But the general instruction is that it does go into the file, it having been reported to us by a citizen, and in the orderly conduct of our business we are to take information which is unsolicited and comes to us.”
So let’s ponder on that for a second. Whenever someone—anyone—went missing, even if the FBI wasn’t conducting an investigation, which is the norm for most missing persons cases, they were probably receiving a lot of unsolicited letters and phone calls from acquaintances of that person, be they friend or foe. These wouldn’t be the “he was such a nice guy” sort of call. They’d be juicier, perhaps scandalous—something that might help explain why such a nice, quiet person up and vanished. Kelley admitted that that’s the sort of information the FBI would gladly accept and file. And with as much publicity as missing person cases receive, I’d imagine that if any of the classifications had a need for their very own special file room, classification 79 would.
Why do you think room 1126 is in the Ident Building?
I was still leaning heavily toward the DOJ Building, when things began to fit much better for the Ident Building. Here’s what led me to my conclusion.
The Department of Justice Building Map doesn’t fit.
I managed to find several telephone directories for the Department of Justice during that general time period, which included a map of the DOJ building’s layout. (Thanks again, Google Books!) I then developed a chart of room numbers on the first floor where Special Investigative Division staff were located in 1975, before they moved into the FBI Building. Although they were located in almost every corridor, no one had an office in the 1100 corridor, which was still occupied by DOJ administrative staff. Therefore, even if there was a room 1126 in that corridor (which I still haven’t confirmed), a DOJ administrator would’ve had to be responsible for the missing person files, which is highly unlikely. That isn’t how the FBI operated.
Files and Communications were responsible for all files, even the special ones.
The Files and Communications Division had a lot of say regarding management of the bureau’s files. If a division wanted to house a sensitive file in the Justice Building for accessibility, they needed to alert Files and Communications first, and it was signed out on a short-term basis, usually with the file kept in a supervisor’s office. Although we learned from Mark Felt that divisions had their own stash of special files, they would’ve been in a locked file drawer, not occupying an entire room. Also, they wouldn’t have had their own stamp declaring it the “Ident Missing Person File Room.”
The Files and Communications Division occupied much of the first floor of the Identification Building.
To reiterate, all bureau files—including those in the Special File Room—were the responsibility of the Files and Communications Division, which occupied several floors of the Identification Building, including the first floor. From 1961 to 1972, the Special File Room was located in room 1315 Ident, and the supervisor in charge of the Special File Room was located in room 1113 Ident. The Special File Room was later moved to the third floor of the Ident Building before everyone moved to the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
The numbering fits.
Room numbers in the Identification Building were in four digits, with the first digit indicating the floor number. Therefore, room number 1126 fits the scheme for a first-floor room. Also, I compared office numbers listed in the 1975 telephone directory, and a number of them correspond to one another by floor. For example, there were offices in rooms 3129, 5129, and 6129. Even though no one had an office number 1126—why would they if it was full of missing person files?—someone did have an office in room 3126, two floors up. We also know that the health center was in room 1121, which would have been a few doors down from 1126.
‘Ident’ is used two ways.
This was perhaps a big source of my confusion. Sometimes “Ident” refers to the Identification Building. And sometimes it refers to the Identification Division. When they wrote “Removed from Ident files” on Ron’s missing person documents, they were talking about the division.
Likewise, the “Ident” in front of “Missing Person File Room” on the stamp was likely referring to the division, although it could have been referring to the building. Either interpretation works.
But are you ready for the clincher? On the first page of the May 26, 1953, report summarizing Mrs. Tammen’s phone call, off to the right of Ron’s identifying features, are the words “Copy of photo filed in 1126 Ident.” Below that is the date 6-5-73. And below that are the initials MSL. They did the customary thing and put the room number in front of the name of the building—1126 Ident. They told us which building. They’d been telling us all along.
And you guys? Now that we know the exact location of the Ident Missing Person File Room, suddenly I’m in the mood to submit a few more FOIAs. Funny how that happens.