I will grant you upfront that the Freedom of Information Act is not a sexy topic.
And yet, last weekend, in a New Orleans Marriott — where some 1,800 true believers got together for the Investigative Reporters and Editors confab — it was standing-room-only for a rather thrilling session on how to sue the government for the release of denied or long-delayed documents. (The short course: It costs only a couple of hundred dollars to open a lawsuit, and doing so has a tendency to focus the attention of foot-dragging public servants.)
The rock stars of public records were present and accounted for: Jason Leopold, a reporter for Vice News, whom a Justice Department lawyer called a member of a “FOIA posse” and who claims with pride that the FBI once referred to him as an “FOIA terrorist”; Sarah Cohen, who heads a data journalism team at the New York Times; Brandon Smith, the independent journalist who, through sheer doggedness, forced the city of Chicago to release the video of Laquan McDonald being killed by police; and Matt Topic, the Chicago lawyer who helped him do it.
Cohen got the crowd psyched up, urging them to stand up and shout, “I want my documents!” (Some added an adjective that cannot be printed here.)
But it was Leopold’s show.
“I sometimes fantasize about winning the lottery and suing the government forever,” he told the crowd.
Leopold’s high-profile stories, often based on FOIA-ed documents, include one just this month about the CIA’s brutal treatment of terrorism suspects after 9/11. And back in 2014, well before anyone was thinking about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Leopold had them in his sights. (His career has had its low points, too, including a 2006 story that proved false, reporting that Karl Rove had been indicted by the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame affair.)
“There’s definitely a kind of adrenaline rush” to try to pry public information out of secretive agencies,” Leopold told me afterward, wearing a T-shirt from the band (International) Noise Conspiracy under a blazer. He certainly keeps at it: He has filed 1,500 document requests in the past five years.
Adding to the excitement is some good news on FOIA: President Obama has said he’ll sign a bill approved in Congress last week that makes significant improvements to the act. This is a big deal, 10 years in the making.
The reform clears away some of the obstacles to releasing information, codifying a “presumption of openness,” rather than the norm, which often seems to be a presumption of just saying no. After various stops and starts, it succeeded with bipartisan support from Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.); Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and Darrell Issa (Calif.), among others.
The reform arrives 50 years after the act was signed (under pressure and with reluctance) by Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966. The changes represent a partial fulfillment of Obama’s pledge of unprecedented transparency before he took office.
As I’ve written before, his record has been far weaker than promised.
Not only has his administration prosecuted leakers and threatened to jail journalists trying to protect their confidential sources, it has been terrible about fulfilling requests for the government information that the public has a right to know, as an Associated Press study made clear.
Leopold, for one, is happy about the reform, although he’s not jumping to any conclusions about how much difference it will make.
But he’s not worried. Even if it doesn’t work, the FOIA posse will keep blasting away.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan