Jason Leopold has used the Freedom of Information Act to break a number of major stories, from the drugging of Department of Defense detainees to the Biblical justifications the Air Force used for nuclear war to a drawn-out battle with the FBI over Occupy Wall Street documents.
So Jason was a natural for kicking off the return of our Requester’s Voice, and he very graciously shared how he got involved in using FOIA in the first place, and what his secret is in shaking documents loose from bureaucracies that seem built to avoid disclosure at all costs (Follow Jason on Twitter and his articles here).
MuckRock: You call yourself a “FOIA terrorist.” What does that mean, and why is FOIA such a central part of what you do?
Jason Leopold: Actually, “FOIA terrorist” is the term that was used to describe me by a certain government agency that was apparently annoyed by the number of FOIA requests and appeals I had filed. I found out about it during a phone call with a FOIA analyst (who has since become an important open government source for me) who said he saw an email from his boss that said, “the FOIA terrorist strikes again. We just got two dozen new requests from him.” I actually liked the term because it made me feel that I was doing my job and doing it well if it meant I was angering government officials.
MuckRock: What areas do you cover in your reporting, and where are you writing these days?
Jason Leopold: I focus on Guantanamo, national security, civil liberties, human rights, open government and counterterrorism. I recently left the online publication, Truthout, where I worked as lead investigative reporter and am now a contributor to Al Jazeera English on matters pertaining to Guantanamo and I sometimes post news stories on the website of The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has generously supported my work on Guantanamo with a crowdfunding grant. I don’t write for any other news organizations at this time although I would like to. Five years ago, I started a website called The Public Record (the name is paying homage to I.F. Stone, who said there is an abundance of information in the public record if you take the time to look for it) and have been publishing some stories there.
MuckRock: What was your first request, and how did it go? Why did you try using public records in the first place?
Jason Leopold: The first request I filed was for the torture memo co-written by former Justice Department attorney John Yoo. My request was denied. In fact, I think I may have actually received a Glomar response for that one. I started to use FOIA because it became increasingly difficult to get sources I had cultivated to go on the record and discuss the explosive allegations they were leveling about government program, policies and activities. I did not have the luxury of working for a mainstream or well-known publication where the public would be much more willing to accept the word of anonymous sources. The response I often saw from people who read my reports quoting anonymous sources was “why is someone speaking to an independent reporter” instead of The New York Times. So, I felt that if I could obtain documents via FOIA to back up the assertions these sources had leveled it would strengthen my reporting and lead the public to trust my work more. But my attempts to pry loose documents during the Bush years was largely unsuccessful and so I gave up for a while on FOIA. That was also due to the fact that I was not very well educated on writing good FOIA requests, which is crucial when trying to obtain documents, or appeals to the numerous denials I had received.
Read the rest of the Q&A at Muckrock.