The Bane of the U.S. Government’s Secrecy Guardians: FOIA Expert Jason Leopold
July 20, 2015
A Wizard at Prying Government Secrets From the Government
New York Times
July 20, 2015
ANGELES — When the reporter Jason Leopold gets ready to take on the
United States government, he psychs himself up by listening to the heavy
metal bands Slayer and Pantera.
Leopold describes himself as “a pretty rageful guy.” He argued recently
with staff members at his son’s preschool because he objected to their
references to “Indians” and they objected to his wearing
family-unfriendly punk rock T-shirts to school meetings.
Leopold, 45, who works for Vice News, reserves most of his aggression
for dealing with the government. He has revealed about 20,000 pages of
government documents, some of them the basis for explosive news stories.
Despite his appearance — on a recent day his T-shirt featured the band
name “Sick of It All” — his secret weapon is the opposite of anarchic:
an encyclopedic knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, the
labyrinthine administration machine that serves it and the kind of legal
judo often required to pry information from it.
small office, just off the kitchen in his home here, is littered with
envelopes from various branches of the government and computer disks
filled with secrets. His persistence has led to numerous revelations —
some in documents that have been released exclusively to him, and others
in documents that have been released to multiple reporters after
pressure has been brought by Mr. Leopold.
have included a series of disclosures from Guantánamo Bay; racist
emails from the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department released after the
shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer and the subsequent
racial unrest in the city; and some details of unreleased Central Intelligence Agency memos on torture (another report was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in December).
time I have a FOIA I think nobody has come across, he seems to already
have a piece of it,” said Adam Goldman, who reports on terrorism and
national security for The Washington Post.
the Obama administration has overseen a crackdown on government
employees talking to journalists, the Freedom of Information Act has
gained a new importance as a source of information. But critics accuse
the government of deliberately making the process difficult — Mr.
Leopold must often sue to get documents. Its role, as a fraught but
increasingly mainstream means of maintaining government transparency,
has been the subject of a series of congressional hearings, which have
aired the experiences of journalists and others, including Mr. Leopold,
who testified at one this summer.
number of stories over the last several years based on government
documents leaked by WikiLeaks and by the former National Security Agency
contractor Edward J. Snowden seem to have piqued the interest of the
public, and of journalists, in acquiring such materials, Mr. Leopold
2009, according to its own figures, the government received about
560,000 Freedom of Information Act requests. By 2014, that number had
risen to about 715,000.
nobody seems to do it as obsessively as Mr. Leopold. In an era of
ideologically driven news, Mr. Leopold says, publishing government
documents is perhaps the most neutral form of reporting. A recent scoop,
a defense intelligence agency document that said the government had
estimated that Mr. Snowden had taken 900,000 Defense Department
documents, was seized on by supporters and opponents of Mr. Snowden to
make their own points, he said.
would love to have somebody drop a million pages of documents on me,”
Mr. Leopold said, referring to leaks. “But even if that does happen,
it’s not going to happen every day, every week, right? So I have to
figure out how to do this work.” He has studied the law in its entirety,
about two dozen pages, and follows each legal and administrative
development that affects it. His submissions requesting information are
so detailed that they sometimes run to 10 pages, he said.
has thousands of requests outstanding, he said. Every day he comes home
and checks his mailbox. When he sees the envelopes, and thinks they may
contain documents he wants, he drops everything he is holding and rips
them open like Christmas presents.
rush of adrenaline, he said, can be compared to a cocaine high. Mr.
Leopold would know. He has written, in a book entitled “News Junkie,” of
his addiction to the drug and his felony plea for stealing CDs to feed a
Leopold has also been through a series of scandals, including
accusations of plagiarism and improper sourcing (which Mr. Leopold
disputes). He was fired from The Los Angeles Times in the early 2000s
after threatening to rip off another journalist’s head after the
colleague had complained of his loud music.
decade ago, he was an outsider, trying to break news on smaller
websites from his house. Until he joined Vice News in 2014, he used a
credit card to pay thousands of dollars required for lawsuits, an
essential part of forcing documents out of government archives and into
love the score,” he said. “So maybe there’s this drug-ish thing in me
that still exists, maybe that was always part of my personality. I love
the score. I love the score! Particularly when it is from the
government! I just got you to give me your own documents, you know!”
Freedom of Information Act was enacted in the 1960s to help citizens
gather information on their government. In practice, it can seem as if
Kafka and Orwell sat down together to plot a nightmare of bureaucratic
“It’s impossibly slow, and it seems on many levels arbitrary what exactly they’re classifying,” Mr. Goldman said.
government agency or department has its own FOIA office that it must
finance out of its own budget, said Scott A. Hodes, a lawyer
specializing in freedom of information requests, and a former acting
head of the F.B.I.’s Freedom of Information Act section litigation unit.
Some records are kept electronically, and are easily searchable. Others
are more antiquated.
office of the secretary of defense, a man who runs a department with an
annual budget of more than $500 billion, was reported, in 2013, not to
be accepting FOIA requests because its fax machine was broken. The
C.I.A.’s FOIA website has been down for some time, Mr. Leopold said, and
there seem to be few signs it will be fixed. And there is one small
Treasury Department office, he said, that has no working email, fax
number or address, and that does not answer the phone.
when Freedom of Information Act officials are accommodating, Mr. Hodes
said, they often have trouble persuading colleagues that the public good
would be served by allowing journalists and citizens to look at
Ann Pustay, who helps oversee the government’s compliance with the law
as director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice
Department, denied that officials used the complexity of the law to halt
legitimate disclosures. The problem, she said, is the strain on the
system as it deals with more and more requests, most of them from
private citizens, or companies, rather than reporters. “That’s really
the No. 1 problem,” she said, “to keep up with demand.”
Leopold has no intention of easing off. In fact, he put in a request
for any of Ms. Pustay’s emails that include the term “FOIA.” His work,
he said, is a kind of redemption. Decades ago, he noted, he had to hide
his felony plea and former addictions from employers, and fit
appointments with a parole officer around job interviews.
Mr. Leopold has landed scoops and big interviews by more conventional
means, he said, using government documents feels beyond reproach. Others
may question their conclusions, but not the source. “It was
subconscious, but it was there,” he said. “This is part of the way that I
am going to win back credibility. So I thought: I am going to work
really hard at this.”