How to Force Government Transparency, Even Under Trump

Using Freedom of Information Act laws, Boston-based nonprofit MuckRock helps citizens take advantage of their rights

Since 1967, FOIA has enabled citizens and journalists to question their government – but will that change under trump? Credit: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t/Flickr

In the United States, the government is supposed to work for the people. It is, after all, in the people's name – and with their dollars – that everything is carried out, from tanks being transferred from military zones to American towns, to prisons being left to profit from mass incarceration, to soldiers being given secret, experimental treatments in an attempt to make them telepathically communicate. Since 1967, citizens have been allowed to request documentation of any government actions, thanks to a collection of laws known generally as the Freedom of Information Act. And since 2010, MuckRock, a Boston-based nonprofit, has been helping people to file FOIA requests.

"FOIA is this very old concept where essentially, anything that the government does, a citizen has a right to be aware of – and to be able to judge it based on their own volition," explains JPat Brown, 30, an executive editor at MuckRock who has worked with them for about three years, and has assisted their expansion from a FOIA-filing service to a daily publishing outlet. Brown's particular focus is on FOIA files related to the FBI, which contain data on everyone from Abbie Hoffman to Ray Bradbury to the Insane Clown Posse. But MuckRock has content covering way more than that, like the Trump Administration, the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and even a special project to find out about the secretive undertakings of PayPal’s Peter Thiel, who financially backed the successful effort to bring down Gawker.

Filing FOIA requests with MuckRock isn't free – fees start at $20 for four requests – but the organization provides users with a lot of information, too. "We keep track of all the basics," says Brown. "We have all the contact information of the right people you're supposed to ask. We have all the legal language that's necessary. And we have additional features like an automated update that reminds people that they actually really do need to do this."

Let's start with the basics. What's the idea behind the Freedom of Information act, and what does it actually do?
The idea is that any record that is produced as a result of the business of the government, anybody can have access to that and review it. It's really that idea of putting power to the people, because all these things are being done with taxpayer money and in your supposed interest – and therefore you are allowed to have input in how you think it's being done.

It's important for an everyday citizen because it's one of the great equalizers in government. You have a legal right to know what the government is doing and why. I think as soon as people start to realize that, FOIA becomes this amazing means of actually engaging with government rather than government just being something that happens to you.

On the simplest levels, this means things like, you can find out why they're doing roadwork on your street. And for a journalist or a researcher, FOIA is especially important right now because there's an all-time lack of trust in the government, and FOIA requires you to be given access to these primary documents. It's what allows one to say: "Okay, with no spin involved, this is what they're doing and why." But a lot of these big journalism projects that we've done, many them started just because someone had a question and they were surprised to find out that you can get the answer to it.

FOIA is important for an everyday citizen because it's one of the great equalizers in government. 

What was a big journalistic endeavor that began with the work of a regular person?
The 1033 Program, for example, was basically the Department of Defense taking equipment from the military and shipping it to police departments across the country. And one of our users, who was just a regular citizen activist, noticed that the police department in Madison, Wisconsin had this giant MRAP [a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle designed by the military to withstand IEDs.] So, he filed a FOIA for what gear the Pentagon had given the Madison police and why. Then we asked the [federal] government "Okay, can you tell us everything that you've given all these local police departments?" And then they said "No." So, then we started asking all of these individual police departments about this and they started telling us. And once the Pentagon realized that, you know, 37 out of these 50 states had already released this information, they quietly just published it all online.

That guy didn't need to go to journalism school or study for the bar to know that it's kind of fucked up that his town has a tank. And if he can just be like "tell my why," well, I think that that's an equalizer. He gets an answer and then we, as journalists, can piggyback off of that and then say "Okay, here's why everyone has a tank." And from a citizen's point of view, I think it's one of the best ideas in a democracy.

We are seeing many antagonisms between the Trump Administration and the press – as well as their internal tensions, like multiple leaks and gag orders placed on agency social media departments. What do you think FOIA or information dissemination in general will be like under the new president?
For the last couple of years have seen FOIA get slowly weakened by the Obama Administration. An ongoing debate in the transparency community has been between notions of open data versus open government. And when Obama said "I'm going to have the most transparent administration in history," what he meant was "I'm going to release the most amount of data," not, "I'm going to help people get access to the information they want."

I think that's been the shift in this establishment community for a long time: all of the money and resources that went towards funding FOIA – which is involuntary for them and can make people look bad – has now gone to open data which is completely voluntary and usually is only the stuff they want out there.

For the most part, at least in the first couple of years, you're going have it be pretty similar to what we have already with Obama where there are delays, and lawsuits are necessary.

When faced with Clinton or Trump, I think Clinton had a clear indicator that she was going to push things more in an open data way, and you're going to have FOIA get increasingly shafted to "Oh, you don't need to know that. Here's all the information that we want to tell you." But with Trump, you know, there was almost like a weird sigh of relief when he got elected because, you know, well, at least he's probably not going to want to do an open data portal [and drown people in useless information.]

Trump could be like, "You know what, I don't really like this FOIA thing. I'm going to tell my agencies not to respond to it."

But I think when you see the social media gag orders for like the EPA, you have to remember that it's an unknowable future in terms of how Trump could just – even tomorrow – be like "You know what, I don't really like this FOIA thing. I'm going to tell my agencies not to respond to it."

But FOIA works really well if the person has a vested interest in that information being released. For example, one of the most difficult agencies we've ever had to deal with is Customs and Border Protection. But one time we had filed a request with them about Scientology documents. And they immediately changed their tune.

So, what I think we may see in the short term – and we're already starting to see some of this – is that agencies like the EPA, NASA, National Parks, which have these pre-existing antagonisms between their departments and the administration, are going to be really good on FOIA. Cause they're going to want to get as much information out as possible. NASA, for example, is usually horrible with FOIA. Don't ask me why. But, now as concerned citizens, the Trump presidency might cause them to change their style and be more than happy to help release information.

MuckRock recently won a lawsuit against the CIA, which forced the agency to uploaded their giant CREST database, which contains 25 years worth of declassified documents. How hard was this undertaking?
[Before the lawsuit,] the only way you could access their database was if you went to this remote location of national archives and there was one computer that had access to it, and then they had a video camera trained in it day and night so that they could see and record everyone who was trying to access this information, which, should really be online. There's no reason why it shouldn't. They gave a bunch of really dumb reasons like, "Oh, it will take 26 years for us to like, digitize all of this and put it online..."

So basically, we filed a FOIA for all the information on this database, and then in 2014, sued them for it. We had the assistance of a good friend and contributor the site named Mike Best who, while we were suing the CIA, he was personally going there, printing out and scanning these records – just as an ongoing way of irritating them. And basically the end of that result was they just gave up and said "Fine, we'll just post the whole thing online." And the weird story there is that archivists were actually totally happy to put the project together. It was just the front-end people who were like, "No, this isn't possible. We don't want you to. We don't want to give up our video camera."

There's an intimidation into ignorance in a lot of the work of these agencies. They just don't want people to know their history. Because you take a long look at the actual political history of what the United States has been involved in, it's pretty fucking gross. It's almost like, in your best interest not to know what we've done. So as a result, even though all this should technically be publicly available, they sort of quietly shove it to the side.

If you take a long look at the political history of the United States, it's pretty fucking gross.

What did you guys find when you finally got access to this database?
There are actually really legitimately interesting things to find in there. For example, Ronald Reagan's jokes were written by the CIA. And there was this clipping I found yesterday for this recipe for pralines and fudge.

Why would that be in there?
Well, turns out one of the kids who wrote the recipe was the son of the deputy director of the CIA, so he basically had this clipping, which he then kept in a classified record for 50 years under national security. [Laughs] It was only declassified around 2007 and released to the public. And it's basically just the equivalent of like having your kid's report card on the fridge. I also found this one thank-you note from the director to an ambassador for a case of beer from some Soviet Bloc country but the name of the brand has been redacted, so we'll never know what the beer was.

Did you find anything about secret or strange operations that the CIA conducted?
We've found all these psychic soldier programs that the CIA was involved in, like an assassination ring using psychic assassins. You'd joke about it, but a story we did a year ago was actually on a Duke University study paid for by the U.S. Army to test whether or not dogs have ESP. There was a piece we just ran ago about this report by military intelligence from 1978, which mentioned how Americans are hampered by an innate fear of weirdness. They don't want to be perceived as odd. And, as a result, it's really hard to get people to train in parapsychology.

We've actually started a project called the Rest of CREST where basically once a day we unearth an interesting or ridiculous file from in there.