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How to Street Fight With the FBI over FOIA and Win

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"The Bureau is simply not operating in good faith"

by George LeVines on Dec. 20, 2013, noon

In this week's Requester's Voice, MuckRock benefits from the experience of Ryan Shapiro, whose track record qualifies him as a FOIA super hero. A PhD candidate at MIT, Shapiro has developed a set of surgical FOIA tactics that have the FBI scrambling to block his requests. Shapiro's ongoing "street fight" with the FBI has him convinced more than ever that our democracy depends on the health of the Freedom of Information Act.

MuckRock: What was your first FOIA request? How did it go? Why did you want/need to use public records in the first place?

Ryan Shapiro: I filed my first FOIA request to the FBI in 2005 when I was working on my master's degree in modern American history. The request was for any records on a now deceased scientist who had been a prominent researcher and Cold Warrior in the 1940s and 50s, although he had earlier been a committed leftist. This scientist was also a leading professional proponent of animal research who routinely accused opponents of animal experimentation of being threats to American security and possibly even agents of the Kremlin itself. I wanted to know what, if anything, the FBI made of this scientist's shifting politics in general, and of his (totally unfounded) allegations of subversion against animal protectionists in particular.

Though I knew almost nothing about FOIA at the time, this request was partially successful. In about a year, the FBI released to me roughly 150 pages. And though this was certainly not all the records the FBI had on this scientist, the release was useful nonetheless. It turns out the FBI completely ignored this scientist's red-baiting of anti-vivisectionists, and instead continued to view the scientist himself as a potential threat to national security on the basis of his 1930's leftism.

I first experienced significant FOIA-related problems with the FBI several years later when I began submitting requests for records about more recent history. I think my earliest request along these lines was in 2008 when I requested my own file.

The FBI responded they couldn't find anything. I still knew relatively little about the intricacies of FOIA work. However, given my own background with aggressive activism beginning in the mid-1990s, I knew the FBI's claim to find nothing was implausible. But I didn't know what to do about it. As I developed my FOIA skills in the course of my PhD research, I submitted additional requests for my files. When the FBI again failed to respond adequately, I sued them about this and roughly 70 of my other FOIA requests. I now have a portion my own FBI file. However, the FBI is currently arguing in court that to release the remaining pages about me now would damage national security. This matter remains in litigation as one element of my ongoing Open America fight (discussed below).

MuckRock: Where did you learn how to become a successful document requester?

Ryan Shapiro: Reading other people's FOIA requests was an important step, particularly at first. Reading as much FOIA case law as possible has also been key. Reading the records of FOIA lawsuits has been essential. Along these lines, agency declarations submitted in FOIA lawsuits are especially illuminative sources of information about a given agency's internal FOIA practices. And endless conversations with expert FOIA attorneys have also been invaluable to my development. I'm especially fortunate to have the counsel of my amazing FOIA lawyer, Jeffrey Light.

In addition to the above, what has been most useful has simply been to file lots and lots of FOIA requests. In general, I design each request not only to hopefully produce the requested records, but also to further illuminate the agency's FOIA operations. In my experience, successful FOIA work is often the product of tacit knowledge. Though it of course should not need to be this way, developing as intimate a familiarity as possible with an agency's internal filing systems, databases, and FOIA practices is frequently the key to success.

MuckRock: How many requests do you file? Daily? Monthly? Yearly? Whatever metric makes sense.

Ryan Shapiro: I currently have about 600 FOIA requests in motion with the FBI, as well as a smaller number in motion with other agencies. How many requests I submit at any given time largely depends on the type of research I'm doing at that moment. Sometimes months will pass in which I submit no requests, and sometimes I'll submit 50+ in a week.

MuckRock: Do you have any advice for MuckRock users? Tips or tricks you've come across over the years.

Ryan Shapiro: The first thing to know about dealing with the FBI for FOIA work is that the Bureau is simply not operating in good faith. While FOIA with some agencies can be akin to a protracted business meeting or an attempt to get telephone customer support from a faceless corporation, FOIA with the FBI is a street fight.

The FBI does nearly everything within its power to avoid compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. This results in the outrageous state of affairs in which the leading federal law enforcement agency in the country is in routine and often flagrant violation of federal law.

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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,, Dig Boston and many others. 

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How to Street Fight With the FBI over FOIA and Win

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