Former Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Adm. Michael Rogers testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
( Pablo Martinez Monsivais
BOB GARFIELD: The press, says the President of the United States, is an enemy of the people - big deal. Jason Leopold, according to the National Security Agency, is something even worse. The senior investigative reporter at BuzzFeed is a power user of FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, and he is such a nuisance that the NSA has joined the FBI in labeling him a FOIA terrorist. Leopold recently filed a lawsuit against the NSA for its lack of timely response to his years-old FOIA request. The NSA's response? To ask the court for a rarely-used “Open America” stay, which would send Leopold’s request all the way to the back of the line.
JASON LEOPOLD: These are inspector general reports, internal watchdog reports at the NSA that would provide insight into waste, fraud, abuse, whistleblowing, essentially what’s going on behind the scenes on what the NSA is looking into.
BOB GARFIELD: And if the government chooses not to provide documents, there are a number of reasons that it can cite, some of them fairly mundane, but they didn't apply to you and they played a card that you weren't expecting them to play. Tell me.
JASON LEOPOLD: This was extraordinary. I had been battling the NSA over these documents for about two years. I knew that they had quite a large backlog. When I had checked in with the NSA to find out when they were going to process my request, I was basically told that it wouldn’t be for about two or three years. So it was at that point that I amended my Freedom of Information Act request and added additional years of reports that I wanted to obtain, 2015 and 2016. And then I sued the NSA.
And, remarkably, the NSA responded by saying that they have 20,000 pages of documents, 20,000 pages of documents covering three years, and they asked if I would be willing to narrow this. No, I was [LAUGHS] not interested in narrowing it. I, I want all 20,000 pages. Right off the bat, Bob, that tells me that there is something going on behind the scene.
BOB GARFIELD: And since inspectors general investigate internal scandals or potential scandals or criminality, that set at minimum a lot of smoke, but they didn't want to provide it and made an extraordinary legal claim. What was it?
JASON LEOPOLD: They called me a “self-styled FOIA terrorist.”
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Which, you know, I – you should probably take as a compliment. And, in fact, you have used that term, but why did you start using it, to begin with?
JASON LEOPOLD: It’s true, I do use that term. It’s in my Twitter bio. You know, I use that term because back, I’d say, about five or six years ago, I filed a number of requests with the FBI and the FBI called me a “FOIA terrorist,” essentially saying that I was terrorizing the agency with my regular Freedom of Information Act requests, and they were quite angry about it.
You know, it’s not unusual for me to find out that the government is disparaging me behind the scenes. I’ve seen it in emails and documents. But, in this case, it – this was so disturbing because they were using that as a legal argument, as a way to try and convince a judge not to give me records. In addition to that, they said that BuzzFeed News had hired me specifically to bombard the government with Freedom of Information Act requests.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it’s possible, of course, that they’re hesitant to devote the resources required to give you 20,000 pages of documents because it's an onerous burden, but you suspect that the answer lies elsewhere.
JASON LEOPOLD: I do. I’m sympathetic and I do understand that, you know, I don’t expect them to give me 20,000 pages of documents in a single day. But what they did prior to filing this motion, as well as a declaration from the NSA's chief FOIA officer, they charged me an extraordinary amount of money to buy these records, to basically purchase them, and even though I asked for a fee waiver, saying this is for the public interest, I’m a journalist. And the response to that is, these records, there is no public interest. There’s no public interest in providing information to the public about waste, fraud and abuse [LAUGHS] at one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world.
So that to me was immediately a hint, a clue that the NSA was not going to give up these records without a fight. As you can imagine, I’m even more intrigued and eager to obtain these records. I mean, if it turns out that it’s, you know, credit card abuse or fraud or things being stolen internally, perhaps that will raise another set of questions about why the NSA went to such great lengths to protect these records.
BOB GARFIELD: In case this wasn't altogether obvious, FOIA is the law of the land passed by Congress, upheld in the court, and every single executive branch agency has a mechanism within to process such requests. So, while you may be overwhelming the system, the system is there for the very purpose of surrendering certain information, that you’re using the law for the benefit of the public interest.
JASON LEOPOLD: Correct, that's exactly what I'm using it for, and I’m not doing anything wrong. Ultimately, this is all in the public interest, and that’s all that I'm doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason, as always, many thank yous.
JASON LEOPOLD: Thank you so much, Bob, great to be with you again.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Leopold is the senior investigative reporter at BuzzFeed.