Illustration by KRISTIAN HAMMERSTAD
MEDIUM.COM: I first learned about Leopold’s work from Twitter. His profile picture showed him standing in front of the entrance to Guantánamo wearing a T-shirt from the punk band Black Flag. He called himself a “FOIA terrorist”—FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. I started following him. The range of stuff that zips by on his feed is staggering and kind of thrilling: 140-character dispatches about guards and prisoners, spies and secrets, corporate intrigue, torture and war. Many of his tweets link to government documents he’s dug up. The documents regularly supply ammo to left and libertarian causes (curtailing NSA surveillance, closing Guantánamo), but Leopold doesn’t present as an activist. He comes off more like a stonecutter chipping away at the base of a mountain, sometimes getting pebbles, sometimes boulders.
Today there’s a small stack of recent FOIA responses next to his iMac. When I ask about them, Leopold starts flipping through the pile, page by page, with a mixture of irritation and amusement. He says he asked for all documents from the Department of Homeland Security about how it monitors the Tea Party movement. “This is really frankly fucking annoying as hell,” he says, looking at the letter from the government. The agency took a year to respond to his request, and now it has given him exactly three pages of documents, “redacted to the point where I don’t really know what it’s about,” he says. So he appealed the decision. (He appeals every response as a matter of principle: “I don’t care if they’re like, ‘Here’s a bunch of documents.’ Still appeal. There may be something left. Have them perform another search. Because they’re just terrible at it.”) He asked for all white papers, PowerPoints, and policy summaries on the use of drones in U.S. airspace and internationally for the purposes of engaging in lethal force against terrorist targets. He asked for “all draft talking points prepared by the NSA following the leaks of classified material about NSA surveillance programs”; he already got the final versions of the talking points, but he wants the drafts, too, for insight into the government’s thought process.
“This is great,” he says, grinning at the NSA letter. “They identified 156 pages of draft talking points but they classified every single page as top secret.” Leopold shoots me a deadpan look: “The draft talking points.” He asked for all CIA files on the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. The agency sent him a “Glomar response,” a kind of evasive maneuver in which an agency neither confirms nor denies that the information exists, and says that if it does exist, it’s classified. “Everyone wants to get a Glomar every now and then,” Leopold tells me. “It’s just kind of like: You hit something. You achieved a Glomar: one point!” (Though his request was rejected by the CIA, Leopold obtained Seeger documents from the FBI that show one agent investigating a complaint from a government employee about his “feelings of revulsion” after listening to a “highly inflammatory” Seeger tape.) Leopold picks up a piece of paper, squints, frowns. It’s a letter from the Postal Inspection Service. He asked them for… something. “To be honest with you, I don’t remember,” he says. “This was not even that long ago. Um.” We’re not even through half the pile. MORE