A Tucson-based cyber journalist fights government secrecy, one Freedom of Information request at a time
By Tim McGivern
One of the photos the Pentagon didn’t want the public to see.
While some folks fail at everything they try, Russ Kick has discovered one thing that he's really good at. You might say he's the master of digging up information that has been tucked away from public view by the federal government.
He is the author of several books, including 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know, that by its own account “debunks modern mythology and the people and institutions serving it up.” It's like a true-life bible for the “X-files” enthusiast who would be aghast to learn the first genetically modified humans have already been born, Hitler's blood relatives live in the United States, and the U.S. planned to explode an atomic bomb on the moon. (OK, so now there are only 47 things you're not supposed to know, but it's still a bargain at $9.95.) In all, Kick, 34, has published eight books in the past decade dedicated to uncovering what he describes as “interesting and important things that have either been suppressed, forgotten or ignored.”
Two years ago, he turned his attention to the Internet and launched the website www.thememoryhole.org, featuring the motto: “rescuing knowledge, freeing information.”
Since then, Kick's investigative tool of choice has been the Freedom of Information Act, and he uses it not only to scoop the mainstream press but to frustrate the government and corporations as well.
For example, two months ago the Tucson-based blogger used the law to obtain photos of coffins returning from Iraq that had been censored by the Pentagon since the Iraq war began. The acquisition led to a flood of media coverage and recently Kick told the Alibi he scooped the mainstream media because of “laziness,” lamenting that only 10 percent of all FOIA requests are filed by journalists.
Russ Kick obtained more than 280 photos of soldiers returning home in coffins from Iraq.
Earlier this year, his investigations reached the front page of The New York Times after he posted documents originally censored by the U.S. Justice Department pertaining to anti-discrimination policy. In May, a recent Newsweek article covered his acquisition of more than 2,000 pages of 9-11 transcripts containing phone and radio communications at the World Trade Center and among airport officials and police officers who responded on the day of the attacks.
For a quick snapshot, his homepage offers statements from congressional hearings exposing how gas companies inflate gas prices, lists Edward "father of the H-bomb" Teller's recently released FBI dossier, and includes more exclusive video footage documenting abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel. He's currently working to obtain footage of the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. (Why haven't we seen that?)
Russ Kick, taking a rare break from rescuing information.
His archives give scant attention to innuendo or opinion. He simply works tirelessly within his legal rights to obtain public documents and then posts them for public consumption.
Interestingly, his latest scoop involves his own website. The headline reads: “The Memory Hole Banned in Iraq.”
In the article, Kick writes: “I've received e-mail from a person with an [army.mil] address. This person is stationed in Iraq, and he/she tells me that The Memory Hole is blocked on military computers. Trying to get to the site results in the following message: Access Denied (content_filter_denied). Your request was denied because of its content categorization: ’Extreme;Politics/Religion.'”
“How interesting,” Kick said, “I post raw documents created by the government, military and corporations. These days, that apparently amounts to ’political extremism.'"
As a result, not surprisingly, Kick has filed a FOIA request to get to the bottom of this.
What do you think drew you to this type of writing? It seems to be an issue you find very important—obviously worth a lot of your time and effort.
Well, part of it goes back to just how I was raised to question things. My parents always taught me to question things, which I realize now is very unusual for parents to have done. So, that's part of it, and part of it is that I've always been fascinated with digging up interesting things.
Back when I was a teenager or somewhere around there, when Trivial Pursuit became the big fad and trivia was everywhere and I was seriously into that. Because I loved the idea of digging up little known facts. I guess, at some point that combined with a political outlook. I've always been very much against censorship, very pro free speech.
Do you feel now, under the Bush administration, that the government has become more secretive and the public's legal rights under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has become threatened?
Yeah, definitely. For one thing, just a few months after 9-11, Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote a memo that was sent to all the federal agencies that have to respond to FOIA requests. In this memo, he told them basically to deny as many requests as you can. There are all the various exemptions under the FOIA, and so he was telling them to use those exemptions, you know, be very expansive about interpreting the exemptions, and try to deny as many requests as you can under any of those exemptions. So, right there, that's obviously the smoking gun that this administration is more secretive. But there are all kinds of other things happening. Another good piece of objective evidence is a report that came out recently. It's really amazing. It's a look at the increased number of documents that have been classified recently.
What's your response to people that say, ’Well it's because of 9-11; it's a different world' and all that sort of thing?
You know, imminent terrorist threats have been around for 25 years or more. It's always been a dangerous world and we had the bombing of the World Trade Center in '93 and then Oklahoma City in '95. It's not like this was the first terrorist attack on America.
We also live in a very politically divided country right now and if you're critical of the White House often times it's almost immediately brushed off as, well, you're just partisan.
Yeah, you're right and that's a problem, because when I do publish things that are critical of or embarrassing for the Bush administration, you know, things that they wanted to keep secret, then, yeah sure, I get e-mail from people who are furious about that. They think I'm just attacking Bush when actually what it is, you know, I've always been against official secrecy and all that range of things. I fight against it and that means fighting against the government and government secrecy and at this point, who is the federal government? Well, it's basically the Bush administration and Republicans in general. They pretty much control all three branches of the government. So, by default, that's who I'm going after. To me, it doesn't really matter who's in control, because they all are too secretive and do things behind [the public's] back and the Bush administration is the worst ever. But really each administration ups the ante, you know? Each one starts classifying more and more, so it's really just a natural progression.
Well, they just want to be able to do whatever they want behind closed doors. It's something that all governments do. I believe it's a natural tendency for government just to want to do things behind closed doors and in secret and most governments don't have the peoples' best interest at heart. It's all about power. You know, governments just want more power and more secrecy and that's just a natural tendency.
Let's talk about some of the stuff that you've uncovered using the FOIA, starting with the coffin photos that you obtained from the U.S. Air Force, from the Dover base in Delaware. You were the first person outside of the government to access those photos—is that correct?
Why do you think no one else in the media was able to get them?
OK, well, the directive that really clamped down on the photos came out in March 2003 from the Pentagon. The policy had been in place since '91 or '92, but it really hadn't been enforced. There were pictures that had come out every so often including some pictures that came out last year that were officially released of some flag-covered coffins coming home from Afghanistan. In March 2003, by sheer coincidence, the Iraq invasion started right when the Pentagon put out this directive that says absolutely no photos of these coffins are to be released to the public or the press. Also, at the same time, the press was not be allowed into any military bases to take pictures of them.
So what was the Pentagon's reason for making that decision?
They said the justification is the privacy of the military families. As far as their jurisdiction, they figure because these are military personnel and military bases, they can restrict it. When I'm reading the news, which I'm constantly doing, if I see that the government is refusing to release something, I automatically file a FOIA request for it. It's become a reflex now.
The directive came out in March 2003 but didn't get reported until October 2003. So when I read that in October, I filed the request for the pictures. I sent it to Dover directly because the military does their FOIA request in a really decentralized manner. You're supposed to send the request to whatever office or base or district that has the records that you want. I knew it was a long shot, because it would appear to have completely violated the Pentagon's directive to release these photos. But you never know. Under the Freedom of Information Act sometimes you can pry something loose that you wouldn't have been able to do with a more informal request, like to the Air Force press office. So I thought I'd give it a shot, that was in early November 2003. In late January, I got a response, and they completely denied the release of the pictures.
Weren't they required by law to respond within 10 days?
Technically, I think it's 20 working days.
Then in January what happened?
First of all, whoever got this request at Dover sent it to the Air Mobility Command of the Air Force. I imagine it was such a hot potato that the Dover people didn't want to deal with it. So they sent it up the chain of command. Air Mobility Command is the one who responded and they completely denied my request and weren't going to release any of the photos. But under the FOIA you can appeal. So I wrote an appeal explaining why I thought that they should release the pictures. I reiterated that I did not want to identify the coffins, I didn't want to know who was in the coffins. I don't want pictures of actual remains. I just want the anonymous coffins that I don't feel violates the families' privacy. I thought this doesn't have a chance, because I have appealed a lot of FOIA denials, and it's never worked.
So there have been plenty of examples of times that you couldn't get information?
Lots of times. When I appealed before it never worked. I think part of the problem is that in the FOIA system you almost always end up appealing to the same place where the initial request was denied in the first place.
So there's no real outside appeal board?
But they did end up sending you the photos?
Yeah, amazingly on April 14 they sent out the CD filled with the pictures. Their cover letter, which I posted on my website, doesn't explain why the decision was reversed. It just said they have reversed their decision and they are releasing the pictures.
Well, I put them up the day I got them. It was pretty late at night, and I sent out a few e-mails announcing this to a couple of journalism listserves I'm on: One is for investigative reporting and one is for freedom of information issues. These include lots of reporters, including some with the big mainstream outlets. Then I went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning the phone was just ringing off the hook. The first to get through was CBS, and they wanted to send out a camera crew to interview me for the evening news.
Dan Rather or your local CBS affiliate?
Yeah, for Dan Rather. While that's going on, ABC called and they wanted me on “Good Morning America” the next morning.
So then the photos got out and millions of people saw them through mainstream media?
Yeah, it went into heavy rotation on CNN. The next day the daily papers had the pictures on their front pages all around the world. It was pretty amazing.
Why do you think you were able to do this and no one in the mainstream media bothered to file a FOIA request.
I think a lot of it is laziness on their part. I think it also has to do with the fact that FOIA requests take too long. They take forever, and there's no guarantee you're going to get anything. You know the 24/7 news cycle needs immediate results. They just don't even think about these things.
Let's go back to my question about why it is you do these Freedom of Information Act requests basically as a hobby.
Right. There is some overlap with what I write and what appears on my website. I started TheMemoryHole.com on the side, totally nonprofit. There are no subscriptions, no ads.
Why do you call it the memory hole?
It's after George Orwell's novel 1984. The memory hole is in the Ministry of Truth. It's how they destroy the articles and speeches of the past that no longer reflect the current political thinking. The main character, Winston Smith, his job is to go into the archives and get all the articles that say something that is no longer true to the government and throw them into this hole beside his desk where they are incinerated.
And therefore “rescuing knowledge and freeing information” is your website's motto?
Let's talk about the zeitgeist in America in terms of government secrecy. Where do you see us headed?
Well, just toward more and more secrecy. It's getting really bad. The Department of Homeland Security has just done something unprecedented with information. They are now clamping down unclassified information. They have a new standard for sensitive but unclassified information. They are refusing to let it out. There is this government report regarding the number of classifications I was telling you about, from the Information Security Oversight Office. They are a part of the National Archives office. They keep track of classifications and declassifications across all federal government agencies. They put out a report for fiscal year 2003 and the number of documents that were classified was over 14.2 million and that's not even the number of pages; that's just the number of documents. That's an increase of 25 percent over the previous year.
From your perspective, is the White House using the guise of national security to suppress information that has nothing to do with national security?
Oh yeah, definitely. For example there is information about problems with dams, nuclear reactors, energy infrastructures—about how unsafe they are—and about industrial polluters. Those are really being clamped down on for national security when really they just don't want us to know how unsafe these things are. These industries are now finding it easier to keep their stuff secret because of the government. It was hard enough to get that kind of information anyway before 9-11. But now the government has this great excuse that terrorists may use this information to wreak havoc.
Talk about that e-mail you got from someone in the military serving in Iraq. They said they were trying to look up your website and it was restricted with a message “access denied.” What has happened with that?
I've filed a FOIA request specifically for that. Who knows how long it will be before I get a response. The exact message this soldier got as far as the site being blocked indicates that it's actually commercial software that the military has installed on their computers.
What else do you want to add about filing Freedom of Information requests.
I urge everyone to file their own. They are fairly easy to do, and there is no restriction on who can file. You don't even have to be in this country to file.
Last thought. Doesn't it seem like a double whammy that the federal government on one hand is making it difficult to get information by denying FOIA requests, concealing names from the federal energy task force, withholding documents from the 9-11 Commission and so on. And on the other hand, the Pentagon is trying to create the Total Information Awareness office and Congress passes the USA PATRIOT Act expanding government surveillance powers and eliminating privacy rights.
Exactly. They are making their activities less transparent but making our activities more transparent. That's definitely the way they are doing it from both ends.
In your opinion why isn't their more public outrage about this?
There are lots of reasons. One is the media isn't covering this enough. They aren't giving this enough attention. The only way the vast majority is going to find out about this is if the mainstream media gives this some attention, and they are not really doing that. There's been a little bit of coverage, but not nearly as much as their needs to be.
Of course you have the federal government trying to say to the people that if you question their activities then you're helping the terrorists. You are not patriotic or American if you try to question what your government is doing. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of the way it should be, the opposite of what a democratic republic should be. And they are doing a great job of convincing people of that.