VICE News reporter and author Jason Leopold sometimes goes by another title: “FOIA terrorist.” Coined by a government official annoyed by the number of Freedom of Information Act requests Leopold had filed, the investigative journalist has proudly reclaimed the description and its bearing on his work by requesting documents from every imaginable government agency.
From Department of Defense records detailing abuses at Guantanamo Bay to files on which celebrities the CIA is tracking, Leopold’s reporting is driven by relentless searches for primary source documents. He is remarkably effective at getting the government, over and over again, to spill its secrets.
On this super-sized podcast – recorded live at Rutgers University on December 14 – Leopold speaks with ProPublica assistant managing editor Eric Umansky and audience members about tips for filing FOIA requests creatively and successfully, his most surprising finds, and the high-profile mistake that led to his fixation on FOIA.
Highlights from their conversation:
Combing through thousands of pages may be tedious, but the work is worth it.
Leopold: It’s labor intensive to digest these documents that are very valuable. When I receive a couple thousand pages of documents, I try to sit with it for a while. I’ll read it once, I’ll read it again, I’ll make notes about page 22. From there, I get an idea of what the narrative will look like. It’s just a matter of investing the time.
If an agency declines a FOIA request, sometimes it takes filing a lawsuit to pry information loose.
Leopold: Of all the news organizations that filed for [the video of the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago], only one person sued for it – and it was an independent journalist. He has no backing from any news organization, but he decided to go to the next level and seek out a lawyer who I believe took it on pro bono. They forced the release of that. It was amazing to me that it took an independent journalist to do that.
Getting burned by a source and botching a high-profile story ended up making him a better journalist.
Leopold: It was probably the worst experience I’ve ever had as a journalist. It was also an opportunity. … Three years later, a friend passed along documents they’d received through the Freedom of Information Act. These were extraordinary documents. It was a PowerPoint presentation given to nuclear missile officers about the ethics and morals of launching nuclear weapons. In this presentation it showed that Jesus Christ, literally, would support launching nuclear weapons. … I published the story and attached these documents, and the story went viral. This ethics training had been in place for 20 years, and after the story came out the Air Force immediately ended it. At that point I thought, I need to do more of this kind of work, where the documents become the primary source material. One – it allowed me to continue doing the work. Two – it could be a good path to allow me to restore my credibility.