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How to Street Fight With the FBI over FOIA and Win

By       Message Muck Rock     Permalink
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More so, we can't even read most of the FBI's argument to support this contention, because the FBI submitted it in the form of an ex partein camera declaration. This is essentially a secret letter to the judge from the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. And -- as journalist Will Potter recently wrote in an excellent article on my case for Mother Jones -- the FBI asserts that allowing us to read this secret letter would "damage the very national security law enforcement interests it is seeking to protect."

As I told Will, this is an especially circular and Kafkaesque line of argument. The FBI considers it a national security threat to make public its reasoning for considering it a national security threat to use federal law to request information about the FBI's deeply problematic understanding of national security threats.

However, from the portions of its argument the FBI has submitted publicly, one thing is clear. The FBI's efforts to exempt itself from the Freedom of Information Act in my case are so extreme and sweeping that, if the judge rules in the FBI's favor, it could have a devastating impact on other FOIA requestors' ability to obtain records from the FBI and government agencies in general. It's for this reason that a host of civil liberties and open government organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, National Security Counselors, and the National Security Archive (along with TruthOut and Mark Zaid) have filed an amicus brief opposing the FBI's radical efforts to shut down my research.

And I think this actually gets close to the heart of the matter.

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It appears the FBI's core motivation here has relatively little to do with the purported security threat posed by possible release of information about the animal rights movement. Instead, I believe the FBI is responding in large part to the increasing efficacy of my FOIA methodologies. Since its earliest days, the FBI has viewed political dissent as a security threat. And since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI has viewed efforts to force Bureau compliance with the law in the same light. Over the years, the FBI has established countless means by which to avoid compliance with FOIA. Over the past five years or so, I've found ways around many of them. I believe the FBI's unprecedented efforts to shut down my research are primarily a last ditch effort to preserve the Bureau's functional immunity from the Freedom of Information Act.

I should note, I'm not sure the above necessarily qualifies as my "favorite" FOIA story, even if it is among the most dramatic. I think my favorite FOIA request is actually one I just submitted.

I recently had the good fortune to be having lunch with Daniel Ellsberg, the former top-level military intelligence analyst who in 1971 leaked the classified DOD report known as the "Pentagon Papers." The leak of the Pentagon Papers unequivocally established that the DOD and a succession of presidents from Truman to Johnson had for decades willfully deceived the American public about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg was deemed "the most dangerous man in America" by Henry Kissinger and was prosecuted by the Nixon administration under the Espionage Act (the same act under which Chelsea Manning was recently convicted and under which Edward Snowden is currently facing prosecution). Daniel Ellsberg is an American hero in the truest sense, and a longtime personal hero of mine. To my tremendous pleasure, at the end of our lunch, Ellsberg generously granted me signed permission to request his FBI file. I can't wait to see how that turns out.

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MuckRock: How do you think your work at MIT and the attention you're getting from the federal government is affecting the FOIA landscape?

Ryan Shapiro: I'm not really sure how to answer this. What I can answer is how I'd like my work to affect the FOIA landscape. I'll be very pleased if my work brings greater attention to the necessity of a robust Freedom of Information Act in particular, and to the pernicious effects of our government's longstanding obsession with secrecy in general. I'm definitely interested in highlighting the absolute necessity of governmental transparency, especially in the face of the ever-growing menace posed by state surveillance and policing of dissent. Outside of a relatively small band of historians, journalists, attorneys, and activists, these topics simply have for decades not been part of any serious national conversation until recently.

Thanks largely to the documents provided and disseminated by Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Hammond, WikiLeaks, and others, such a conversation is finally getting underway. I would like my work, and the FBI's outrageous responses to it, to contribute to and amplify this conversation.

MuckRock: Does the pushback ever get tiresome or wear on your drive to continue?

Ryan Shapiro: Ha. Not really. If anything, just the opposite. On this front I find myself in agreement with Robert, one of the young "Wolverines" in Red Dawn (the 1984 classic, not the appalling 2012 remake). When chastised, "All that hate's gonna burn you up, kid," he responds only, "It keeps me warm."

Seriously though, it's not the pushback that upsets me. It's what I frequently uncover when I do obtain documents.

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For example, one 2003 document I obtained via a FOIA request reveals FBI advocacy of bringing federal terrorism charges against undercover investigators of factory farms (You can read about that document on GreenIstheNewRed.com here and at the Los Angeles Times here).

We're talking about people who videotaped animals intensively confined in cages so small they can't stand up, can't spread their limbs and can't turn around. This horrific existence is standard for many of the nine billion animals raised and killed every year on factory farms in the United States alone. And the FBI's response to exposure of what goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms is to consider prosecution of the whistleblowers, and to do so under federal terrorism charges.

This is the sort of thing that makes me mad, and reading my own name on that document didn't help. That said, this is also the sort of thing that makes me all the more committed to my work.

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Freedom of Information, finally made easy.

Filing Freedom of Information Requests doesn’t need to be difficult. At MuckRock, we are dedicated to wading through the muck so you don’t. What does this mean for you? Less time spent mitigating complex bureaucratic processes so that you can focus on analyzing and reporting on the issues that matter most to you and your organization or business.

As the only public records request service of its kind in the United States, MuckRock serves journalists, researchers, activists and historians, with a track record of over 2,000 requests. Simply login to your account and submit your FOI request via our simple web-interface.

MuckRock acts as a request proxy, e-mailing, faxing or even snail mailing the request on your behalf. Documents are sent to our offices to be prepared by our team of experts for your convenience. We can even assist with analyzing your data. Our intuitive system ensures that your documents are for your eyes only until you're ready to publish.

Stumped for a story? MuckRock's community gives plenty of inspiration for compelling, data-driven reporting at the fingertips of customers, who have access to our exclusive data and stories without having to go on time-consuming fishing expeditions to reel in leads.

Cofounder Michael Morisy is an award-winning journalist who has had work featured in Boston Globe, the New England Center for Investigative Journalism, and many others. 

Cofounder Mitchell Kotler is a veteran of multiple technology startups including Achronix. He has a Masters in Electrical & Computer Engineering and a Bachelors of Science from Cornell University. 

Projects Editor Shawn Musgrave, a graduate of Boston University, has managed some of the largest public records projects ever done, working with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Boston Globe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. 

Reporter George LeVines, a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on security, policing and historical government documents. He has been published by the the Christian Science Monitor, Boston.com, Dig Boston and many others. 

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How to Street Fight With the FBI over FOIA and Win