Archive for the ‘Whistle-blower’ Category


Rise of the ‘FOIA terrorist’

Normally, I would just link to this type of piece in my weekly “must read” FOI story round up, but I wanted to draw extra attention to a recent article in Medium about Jason Leopold, the self-proclaimed “FOIA terrorist.”

The author, Jason Fagone, writes in his piece (one of the best long-form narrative stories I’ve read in a while) that he first learned of Jason Leopold through Twitter, as did I. Anyone following the #FOIA hashtag would be hard pressed to miss him. Many major stories broke as a direct result of his FOIA requests — The Abu Zubaydah Diaries.

… The military’s horrifyingly clinical description of how guards at Guantánamo are force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes, and manuals describing how the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Twitter for terrorist threats, and FBI records about the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings.

The story also recounts Leopold’s “dark past”: his struggles with substance abuse as well as his questionable ethics as a journalist at major news outlets. Having only been in the journalism world for three years, I was unaware of Leopold’s fall from journalism grace. But apparently after The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a story pointing out his mistakes in a major piece he published about Enron, Leopold thought his journalism career was over. Who wouldn’t?

One line that stuck out to me — when Leopold was explaining his questionable ethical decisions of bungling quotes, spelling mistakes, lying to sources about what was on and off the record:

“My whole thing was, I wanted to get at the truth by any means necessary,” he says.

I don’t know any journalists who couldn’t relate to that sentiment of wanting the truth that bad. Ethical decisions easily become clouded by those strong emotions. When you’re chasing down that big fish story, it’s hard not to get tunnel vision like Captain Ahab.

But he’s redeemed himself as far as I’m concerned.

Fagone writes, “Stories that praise Leopold’s FOIA scoops often refer to him not as a journalist but as an ‘activist.'”

I think that’s ridiculous. While the Freedom of Information Act is at the disposal of all people, no one utilizes it like a journalist (New hashtag? #FOIAlikeajournalist), or like Leopold does. And this is how he gets his stories now. No interviews. Just cold documents and hard facts.

Fagone writes:

The great thing about FOIA, for Leopold, was that it didn’t care about his past. It was just a law, an impersonal series of rules and procedures, inputs and outputs. There was hope in that.

Without giving away too many spoilers, one thing revealed is Leopold’s love for punk music, which makes sense. FOIA is the journalist’s version of a punk rock concert. The “in-your-face” attitude that comes with writing and submitting a FOIA request is akin to the thrill of being in a mosh pit, elbowing a drunk douchebag in the nose.

Above all, what I’m really happy to see is more FOIA advocacy. We could all benefit from having a Leopold in every newsroom.

On a final note, if Leopold reads this: Know that you’ve got at least one other FOIA soldier ready to do your bidding.

Mad props to Leopold, as well as Fagone and Medium, for publishing such an important story.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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FOI Daily Dose: Privacy exemption limits most FOIA requests

Privacy is the most frequently cited exemption for denying Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

The study compiled 15 years of annual FOIA  report data for 13 cabinet-level departments, excluding Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services because they mostly receive individual requests for personal records.

Of the nine exemptions that limit the free flow of information act, agencies used privacy exemptions more than 232,000 times last year, or 53 percent of the time, to deny requests.

The exemption has not been applied so broadly since the fiscal year of 2002 in the wake of Sept. 11.

The exemption is meant to protect personnel and medical flies, information that would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and law enforcement information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to the study.

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FOI Daily Dose: Ohio newspapers restrictions on open government, AP president says DOJ violated its own rules

Ohio newspapers stand against restrictions on open government, records

The Ohio Newspapers Association (ONA) is standing against more than half a dozen bills pending in the legislature that place more restrictions on the state’s public records and open meetings laws, according to Gongwer News Service.

Two bills ONA is watching closely include House Bill 59, an amendment that allows local governments to discuss economic development deals in secret and Senate Bill 60, legislation that eliminates public access to concealed handgun permit records (see previous post).

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio monitors the state’s sunshine laws, and she told Gongwer News Service she’s noticed increased efforts to limit access to government information across the board.

Dennis Hetzel, ONA executive director, told Gongwer there are other pending bills that provide hope for open government advocates, including Senate Bill 93 that limits reasons for executive session, House Bill 175 that creates a state government expenditure database and House Bill 189 that increases the transparency of Jobs Ohio.

AP president says DOJ subpoena without warning violated DOJ rules, compromised First Amendment freedoms

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, accused the Justice Department of violating its own rules when it secretly subpoenaed more than 20 AP phone lines in May. He also noted some sources have been reluctant to talk with reporters since the search for  fear that their anonymity will be compromised.

Pruitt addressed a luncheon of journalists and others June 19, telling them the AP was never warned about the search that monitored thousands of phone calls to and from its reporters even though the DOJ rules say the only reason for a delay in notification is if the party searched could compromise the investigation.

Pruitt said there’s little reason to believe this could justify not warning the AP because their phone records were in the hands of the phone company so there’s no way they could have tampered with them. The FBI had also already announced its leak investigation by the time the search began, so the leaker was already tipped off, Pruitt said.

Instead, he explained the only logical reason the DOJ did not notify the AP is to supersede the AP’s ability to contest the search or narrow its scope.

“The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” Pruitt said.

Beyond the DOJ’s own code of ethics, he said the search compromised the First Amendment freedom of the press and effectively suppressed the free speech of federal leakers. Since the search, he said reporters from several news organizations have told him their sources felt intimidated by the DOJ’s actions.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Update: China praises ‘handsome’ hero, condemns U.S. ‘double-standard’

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden might be getting flack from Washington about his NSA surveillance exposure, but in China he’s a “handsome” hero, ABC News reports.

Many Chinese have taken to China’s version of Twitter, called Weibo, posting the leaker’s old modeling photos (turns out Snowden had a brief modeling stint). On a Weibo survey, 78 percent of respondents see Snowden as “freedom fighter who is protecting civil liberties,” ABC reports.

Snowden first told the Guardian he chose Hong Kong for his hideout because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”

And the results of the Weibo survey make it look like he’s safe, considering only three percent of respondents support turning him over to the U.S. government, ABC News said.

But even though it looks like China has taken a liking to Snowden, the nation has little patience with the U.S. as a whole since U.S. efforts to hack Chinese correspondence creates a “double standard” after the U.S. complained about Chinese hacking in May.

According to the Guardian, China said U.S. surveillance is testing Sino-U.S. ties and straining an already “soured relationship” on cybersecurity.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Fox News reporter uses NY shield law to fend off subpoena; Dems and GOP criticize Snowden, NSA director speaks about leaks

New York shield law may fend off subpoena

A Fox News reporter is seeking protection from being forced to reveal her sources in Colorado court under New York’s shield law, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Fox News reporter Jana Winter was subpoenaed in January for a July 25 story she wrote about the Colorado movie theater massacre last summer involving two anonymous law enforcement sources.

A five-judge panel heard the case on June 12 when Winter’s attorney argued that she should not be forced to reveal her sources because even though she was reporting in Colorado, she lives and works in New York, and is therefore protected under New York’s shield law, which provides “absolute privilege for journalists’ confidential sources and reporting materials,” RCFP said.

The attorneys for the accused shooter James Holmes subpoenaed Winter, saying the law enforcement sources violated Holmes’ right to a fair trial by telling Winter about his notebook allegedly filled with drawings of the planned shooting.

With the help of a Colorado judge in January, the attorneys got Justice Larry Stephan of Manhattan to sign-off on a subpoena, and Winter’s attorney, Dori-Ann Hanswirth, filed papers to appeal Stephan’s decision to sign, according to Fox News.

Since Stephan signed, Winter had to attend a Colorado hearing in April to determine whether Holmes’s notebook qualifies as evidence in the case. Winter is scheduled to reappear before the court in August, and if the notebook is ruled a “substantial issue,” she will be ordered to reveal her sources lest she face time in jail for contempt of court, according to RCFP.

But the New York court’s decision from Wednesday’s hearing may save her if they rule that Stephan should not have signed-off on the subpoena in the first place. Hanswirth told RCFP she is hopeful the New York court will decide before August.

Snowden under fire from both sides of party lines, NSA director speaks out

National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden received criticism from Republicans and Democrats on June 13 after closed briefings with top administration officials, according to Yahoo News.

Two senior Republican lawmakers raised vague, yet alarming concerns that terrorists are already changing their tactics now that the NSA surveillance programs are unveiled.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich) said there are “changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm,” and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) of the Senate Intelligence Committee said those “changes” might even cost American lives, according to Yahoo.

“His disclosures are ultimately going to lead to us being less safe in America because bad guys will be able to figure out a way around some of the methods we use, and it’s likely to cost lives down the road,” Chambliss said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland), the committee’s ranking Democrat, expressed concerns and questions about Snowden’s choice of a Hong Kong hideout since it’s part of China, “a country that’s cyberattacking us every single day.”
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander also spoke out for the first time, sharing concerns about terrorists changing their plans in response to the leaks and saying he hopes to bolster support for the programs by declassifying “dozens of attacks” they have helped disrupt, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Alexander defended NSA’s intelligence programs as legal and necessary. But he did admit concern that junior employees like Snowden can access so many national security secrets and said that issue needs to be addressed.

“This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network,” he said. “This is something we have to fix.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: FOIA affects immigration debate

Immigration isn’t just a talking point for President Obama, who praised the Senate’s progress on the comprehensive reform legislation at a June 12 Democratic National Committee fundraiser. It’s a hot topic for Freedom of Information Act  junkies this week, too.

The Judicial Watch, a public-interest watchdog group, reported June 12 that it recently acquired documents through a FOIA request that revealed the federal government isn’t complying with current immigration enforcement laws and regulations.

An anonymous whistle-blower within a federal law enforcement agency alerted Judicial Watch that the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services has been undermining America’s national security by replacing required background checks on undocumented immigrants with costly “lean and lite” procedures since late 2012. The USCIS allegedly adopted these “haphazard” procedures to keep up with the influx of amnesty applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that gives undocumented immigrants a two-year deferment from deportation. The Watch said their FOIA documents prove that background checks on immigrants seeking “deferred status” do not measure up to Immigration and National Security Act (INA) standards.

The Watch filed a FOIA request with the Homeland Security Department on Oct. 26, asking for “all communications, memoranda, emails, policy guidance, directives, initiatives and other correspondence respecting the scope and extent of background checks to be performed (or not) on aliens applying to the Obama administration’s DACA program.”

And the Watch isn’t the only group seeking more information related to  immigration. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a team of San Diego news organizations asked a federal judge on June 12 to break the seal on information about an undocumented immigrant who died after he was beaten and Tasered by Border Patrol agents, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In May, the agent’s attorneys asked the judge to seal the filings, and the government supported the request to prevent exposing the policies and procedures of Customs and Border Protection. But the ACLU said the cost of civil liberties in this case is too high, so they’re protesting the seal to “protect the public’s interest in open and transparent proceedings in cases involving serious questions of official misconduct,” the Union-Tribune said.

“The defendants’ extraordinary request to allow this case to proceed under full seal due to unspecified and unproven ‘security concerns’ violates both the First Amendment and the common law right of access to judicial records,” David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, told the Union-Tribune. “Openness in judicial proceedings is essential to creating public trust in the legitimacy of the proceedings. In this case, defendants have not met the strict standard for cutting public access to the court record.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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FOI Update: NSA whistle-blower on the run, Judge Vinson attends security conference, speculation of presidential power abuses

After Edward Snowden outted himself as the whistle-blower who unveiled the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, he allegedly fled the Hong Kong hotel room he was hiding out on June 10, according to Fox News.

On the morning of June 11, Snowden’s whereabouts were still unknown, but Hong Kong newspapers plastered with his image called him the “World’s Most Wanted Man.”

Fox News reports that if the Justice Department catches and charges Snowden, it’s likely to ask the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) for “a provisional request to arrest him pending extradition to the United States.”

Meanwhile a community of whistle-blowers spouted praise for Snowden in a series of letters published June 10 on the Guardian, commending his courage in revealing himself and standing up to one of the world’s most powerful security agencies.

In related news, The Center for Public Integrity collected disclosure records that revealed the judge who signed the court order requiring Verizon to give its customers’ telephone records to the NSA went to a seminar on strong executive branch powers in August 2008.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson attended lectures about the balance of civil liberties and national security, especially in times of terror, at the “Terrorism, Civil Liberty, & National Security” seminar sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

Vinson began his term on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2006, and it just expired in May.

Although Americans are largely divided about whether NSA’s surveillance is warranted to protect national security, The Atlantic published a provocative article June 7 urging Americans to consider the potential abuses of power that could ensue if a dictator seizes control of our current security infrastructure in the 2016 election.

Politics writer Conor Friedersdorf said Americans are too trusting of their own leaders and too fearful of potential terror threats that may or may not be real. But he said there is one very real threat to American security: Citizens giving up our Constitutional rights and liberties to presidents we trust, creating a dangerous precedent for when someone we may not even know now inherits those same presidential powers in the future.

“In less than four years, an unknown person will start presiding over the national-security state. He or she will be an ambitious power seeker who will guiltlessly misrepresent his or her character to appeal to different voters, lie countless times on the campaign trail, and break numerous promises while in office. That’s a best-case scenario that happens every time!”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI FYI: Is NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden a hero or villain?

While U.S. officials hunted for who leaked about the National Security Agency’s sweeping domestic surveillance late last week, the whistle-blower outed himself.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and a current employee for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, requestedthe Guardian reveal his identity in an article and video interview published June 8.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told the Guardian.

After working at the National Security Agency for the last four years, Snowden said he decided to leak top secret information about the government’s surveillance because his conscience got the best of him. He didn’t feel right about racking up a big pay check in his Hawaii office all the while fighting off his gut feeling that NSA workers like him could easily grant themselves the right to snoop on average Americans without “public oversight.”

“The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” Snowden told the Guardian.

In the interview he also said the NSA “routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America,” and he hopes that his outing will not detract attention from the top secret documents and information he publicized.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” he told the Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Snowden made the decision to out the NSA in what the Guardian is calling the “biggest intelligence leak” in the organization’s history about three weeks ago when he copied top secret documents in his office and boarded a plane to Hong Kong on May 20. He has been hiding out and conducting secret interviews with the press ever since. He told his supervisors he needed to leave work for “a couple of weeks” for epilepsy treatments (a condition he actually has), the Guardian said.

Snowden told the Guardian that he chose Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,” and he thinks it’s one place he can hide from the repercussions of blowing the whistle on ultra-powerful American intelligence agencies.

Before Snowden revealed himself, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald who has been breaking information about the NSA’s surveillance since June 5 (see our previous blog post) appeared on ABC News “This Week” Sunday to warn Americans there might be more than one NSA whistle-bower and to commend whistle-blowers everywhere for not allowing government prosecution to dissuade them from speaking out.

“(S)ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers – who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution,” Greenwald told ABC News.

But also on “This Week” Sunday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)  and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told ABC News that the NSA’s massive surveillance program is not only “within the law,”  but also it has already helped thwart terror plots, including Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plan to bomb New York City’s subways.

“I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it’s exactly the program that was used,” Rogers told ABC News.

On June 7, President Obama addressed the press at an appearance in California primarily about health care. He explained that although he welcomes debate about citizen’s privacy concerns, he does not welcome the leak to the press because he said the NSA’s top secret programs are secret for a reason. They help the government identify and stop potential terrorists without alerting terrorists about how the system works.

“Our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm, and if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified,” Obama said on June 7.

He noted that NSA employees can be trusted to “operate like professionals” and their surveillance methods are “very narrowly circumscribed.”

One senior law enforcement source told ABC News last week that the leaker’s decision to spill top secret information about the NSA was “completely reckless and illegal.”

“It’s more than just unauthorized. He’s no hero,” the source told ABC News.

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FOI Daily Dose: Whistle-blowers wanted to call out curious NSA programs, Patriot Act under fire

As reporters continue to pull back the curtain on sweeping government surveillance, whistle-blowers are gaining wind as a vital and ever-threatened cog in the American democracy machine.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article June 6 calling all citizens to arms to help hold the government accountable  especially those working on the inside of National Security Agency (NSA) programs recently exposed for monitoring and mining information about the American public.

Since the revelation that the government has the ability to track every citizen like a potential terrorist (collecting personal phone records and using programs like PRISM to tap into information from U.S. Internet giants), The Atlantic is encouraging insiders to report these programs’ activities to the press so the public can learn more.

Now that we know phone lines and computers are being watched (and that’s only scratching the surface, The Atlantic says), we need whistle-blowers more than ever to expose secrets about other ways Feds are collecting information and how they’re using the information they have.

The Atlantic said these top secret NSA programs are “probably illegal,” so blowing the whistle on them is essentially “the moral response to immoral activity by those in power.”

On June 7, MSNBC published an article saying the author of the Patriot Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), denounced the government’s overbroad interpretation of it as “un-American” and potentially un-Constitutional. But despite his apparent dismay, The Atlantic notes that Sensenbrenner has “a curious history of insisting that it is good law” since he first introduced it in 2001.

In their editorial board on June 6, The New York Times called for the infamous act to be either sharply curtailed or repealed to prevent overbroad interpretations in the future.

But intrusive government surveillance isn’t a problem unique to Patriots. The Human Rights Watch tracked the issue on Twitter, showing that appalling abuses of federal power are stirring up controversy everywhere from the European Union, to India, to Singapore, to Jordan and Azerbaijan — just to name a few.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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Whistle-blower Watch: DOJ ‘very likely’ to seek source of NSA leak in Verizon case

Federal whistle-blowers, beware. Attorney General Eric Holder is “very likely” to seek out the source who squeaked to the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s top secret phone record raid, according to an NBC correspondent who interviewed Attorney General Eric Holder about the Associated Press and Fox News subpoenas after the news broke.

The Guardian published a court order for the NSA to obtain Verizon customers’ phone records as well as a provocative article calling out the Obama administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law to engage in excessive domestic surveillance” on the evening of June 5. (See our previous post on the topic.)

But before the Guardian posted the order or the article, it said it approached the National Security Agency, the White House and the Justice Department, all of which declined to comment or raise specific security concerns as to why the information should not be made public.

Even so, NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams, who appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” June 6 with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, confirmed that the Justice Department will investigate who blew the whistle.

“I was told last night: definitely there will be a leak investigation,” Williams said.

But on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” later that morning, Williams backed away from such certainty, telling host Chuck Todd: “It seems highly likely this will trigger a leak investigation.”

The Huffington Post said a senior administration official told them Thursday morning that it’s too early to suggest an investigation will “definitely” take place.

Stay tuned for updates.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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