Thursday, May 8, 2008
Stoned on speed, Elvis Presley arrived at the White House wearing a purple velvet suit and bearing gifts for President Richard Nixon -- a Colt .45 pistol and some silver bullets.
It was Dec. 21, 1970, and Elvis had a mission: He wanted Nixon to give him a federal narcotics agent's badge so he could carry dope and guns wherever he went. Nixon didn't give Elvis the badge, but he did pose for pictures with the King of Rock-and-Roll.
Nineteen years later, newspapers reported that the Elvis-Nixon photos were the most requested pictures in the federal government's vast photo collection, and Tom Blanton responded the same way he responds to so many other interesting news stories: He filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
"When the president meets with anybody, there's a whole paper trail, so we filed a FOIA request and got the entire file released," says Blanton, who is the director of the National Security Archive, a private research group devoted to prying documents out of the federal government's files and making them public.
The fruits of Blanton's Elvis-Nixon FOIA turned out to be gloriously goofy: There was Elvis's handwritten letter to Nixon requesting a meeting and bragging that "I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse." And a White House staffer's memo suggesting that Nixon ask Elvis to "record an album with the theme 'Get High on Life.' " And the official notes of the historic meeting: "Presley immediately began showing the President his law enforcement paraphernalia, including badges from police departments . . . ."
Blanton posted the documents on the National Security Archive's Web site, and for years they were the most downloaded items on the site. But in 2003, the Elvis-Nixon meeting was dethroned by another of the archive's postings -- documents detailing the 1983 meeting of two other legendary characters, Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein.
The archive obtained those documents by FOIA, too. One State Department cable showed Rumsfeld cozying up to Saddam, who was then involved in a long, bloody war with Iran: "Rumsfeld told Saddam US and Iraq had shared interests in preventing Iranian and Syrian expansion. He said US was urging other states to curtail arms sales to Iran."
Blanton loves government documents. It's an acquired taste that has also been acquired by his colleagues at the archive. Over the past 23 years, they have filed more than 35,000 FOIA requests and collected more than 5 million pages of government documents. Some of the documents are mind-numbingly boring, of course, but others are nothing short of astonishing:
A CIA guidebook called "A Study of Assassination," which advised right-wing Latin Americans on the most effective ways to bludgeon, stab and shoot their enemies.
A National Security Agency study revealing that the agency "deliberately skewed" its account of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the escalation of the Vietnam War.
A 2002 Pentagon PowerPoint briefing on plans for the upcoming invasion of Iraq -- code name "Polo Step" -- that assumed that only 5,000 American troops would remain in Iraq by the end of 2006.
Perhaps the most famous documents obtained by the archive were the CIA's so-called "Family Jewels," which detailed the agency's illegal wiretaps and attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. The archive filed its FOIA request for the "Family Jewels" in 1992. Fifteen years later, in 2007, the CIA finally released them, and they made headlines around the world.