FBI Stops Responding To The Most Prolific FOIA Filer, Because He Might Actually Learn Something
from the he's-so-effective-that-they'd-like-him-to-stop dept
Mother Jones has an interesting profile of Ryan Shapiro, a punk rocker turned animal rights activist turned MIT PhD student, who is officially the “most prolific” filer of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the FBI. At a high point, he was filing an average of two per day. In fact, he filed so many FOIA requests so successfully, that the FBI is now refusing to respond and is giving the courts a secret explanation which they won’t share.
The FBI claims that it cannot discuss the case in open court “without damaging the very national security law enforcement interests it is seeking to protect.” Instead, it has filed a secret declaration outlining its case. “This is an especially circular and Kafkaesque line of argument,” Shapiro counters. “The FBI considers it a national security threat to make public its reasoning for considering it a national security threat to use federal law to request information about the FBI’s deeply problematic understanding of national security threats.”
The FBI is basically arguing that because Shapiro is filing so many requests, he might actually be able to pull enough info together from so many different responses, that it would reveal stuff that wouldn’t have been revealed if it had been found in a single FOIA request. In other words, Shapiro is better at this game than the FOIA censors, figuring out ways to get a variety of information that, when put together, is actually kind of useful.
Part of the trick, apparently, is getting a ton of people to agree to sign “privacy waivers” so he can request the FBI’s info on those people, which the FBI wouldn’t reveal otherwise.
When he started using privacy waivers, Shapiro realized he was on to something. Suppose you and I volunteered for the animal rights group PETA. If Shapiro requested all PETA-related FBI documents, he might get something back, but any references to us would be blacked out. If he requested documents related to us, he’d probably get nothing at all. But if he filed his PETA request along with privacy waivers signed by us, the FBI would be compelled to return all PETA documents that mention us—with the relevant details uncensored.
Shapiro began calling up old friends and asking for waivers. Coming of age amid the 1990s punk scene, he’d been drawn to animal rights causes and took part in their actions. He walked into foie gras facilities to film sick and injured ducks, several of which he rescued, and locked himself to the doors of fur salons. And while he no longer does such things, he has kept in touch with people who do.
Armed with signed privacy waivers, he sent out a few experimental requests—he calls them “submarine pings”—and when the FBI returned more than 100 pages on a close friend, he knew he’d struck gold. The response included pages of information that Shapiro had requested previously, but that the FBI had claimed didn’t exist. Using case details from those documents and a handful of additional waivers, he filed a new set of requests.
Later in the article, Shapiro admits that as he got more and more responses, it certainly allowed him to fill in many blanks (and also point him to where to file other requests). This, it seems, is exactly what the FBI fears the most: Shapiro has outsmarted them. While, normally, FOIA responses are done in a manner to limit what information is shared and to never, ever suggest a slightly different query that might be useful, it appears Shapiro has more or less figured out a way around that, in part via bulk requests which lead down other paths of inquiry. No wonder the FBI has stopped responding. Shapiro just plays the game better than they do, and they’re used to a world where the house always wins.