Archive for the ‘Abu Zubaydah’ 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 or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

FOI Daily Dose: Controversial CIA whistle-blower speaks about prison life

Former CIA operative John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in a low security Pennsylvania prison in January for revealing a covert officer’s identity.

But he’s sticking by his story that he’s really behind bars for blowing the whistle on the U.S. government’s use of torture techniques to obtain information from terror suspects.

“In truth, this is my punishment for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program and for telling the public that torture was official U.S. government policy. But that’s a different story,” Kiriakou wrote in a letter from prison first published by The Dissenter blog on May 29.

Kiriakou’s attorney, Jesselyn Radack, told ABC News she published the six-page letter to draw attention to “the way he’s being treated” in prison. But other than a security official allegedly trying to stage a fight between Kiriakou and an Arab prisoner, the ex-operative reports that “violence isn’t a problem.” Most of his letter details day-to-day observations around the prison and doesn’t divulge much more about the provocative predicament that landed him there in the first place.

Kiriakou was a CIA intelligence officer from 1990-2004, and in December 2007 became the first insider to publicly acknowledge the CIA’s use of waterboarding (a torture tactic that simulates drowning) when he told ABC News how interrogators got information from al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah.

Kiriakou told reporters Zubaydah broke after one session of waterboarding, but U.S. government documents released in April 2009 showed that the CIA used waterboarding “at least 83 times during August 2002 in the interrogation of Zubaydah,” ABC News reports.

Even so, according to the CIA, Kiriakou didn’t become the subject of  investigation until a separate incident in the spring of 2009 when he allegedly revealed information and photographs about CIA and U.S. government contractors to Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Attorney General Eric Holder appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in 2010 to oversee the investigation of Kiriakou, and in 2012, Kiriakou was indicted for telling a reporter the name of a covert CIA operative along with classified information about that operative and another employee.

Kiriakou pled guilty to disclosing the name,  but four other charges, including three counts of violating the Espionage Act, were dropped.

Since then, more than 2,500 people have signed a petition on calling Kiriakou a “hero” whistle-blower and asking President Obama to pardon him.

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


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