In Mother Jones, Will Potter profiles Ryan Shapiro, a punk rocker-turned-PhD student who wanted to study how the FBI monitors animal-rights activists. Through trial and error, and a lot of digging, he devised a perfectly legal, highly effective strategy to unearth sensitive documents from the bureau’s ‘byzantine’ filing system. So now the FBI is petitioning the United States District Court in Washington, DC, to prevent the release of 350,000 pages of documents he’s after. If the court buys the FBI’s argument here, it could make it harder for scholars and journalists to keep tabs on federal agencies.
Meet the Punk Rocker Who Can Liberate Your FBI File. By Will Potter. Mother Jones. Wed Nov. 13, 2013
According to the Justice Department, this tattooed activist-turned-academic is the FBI’s “most prolific” Freedom of Information Act requester—filing, during one period in 2011, upward of two documents requests a day. In the course of his doctoral work, which examines how the FBI monitors and investigates protesters, Shapiro has developed a novel, legal, and highly effective approach to mining the agency’s records. Which is why the government is petitioning the United States District Court in Washington, DC, to prevent the release of 350,000 pages of documents he’s after.
Invoking a legal strategy that had its heyday during the Bush administration, the FBI claims that Shapiro’s multitudinous requests, taken together, constitute a “mosaic” of information whose release could “significantly and irreparably damage national security” and would have “significant deleterious effects” on the bureau’s “ongoing efforts to investigate and combat domestic terrorism.”
So-called mosaic theory has been used in the past to stop the release of specific documents, but it has never been applied so broadly. “It’s designed to be retrospective,” explains Kel McClanahan, a DC-based lawyer who specializes in national security and FOIA law. “You can’t say, ‘What information, if combined with future information, could paint a mosaic?’ because that would include all information!”
Fearing that a ruling in the FBI’s favor could make it harder for journalists and academics to keep tabs on government agencies, open-government groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Security Archive, and the National Lawyers Guild (as well as the nonprofit news outlet Truthout and the crusading DC attorney Mark Zaid) have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Shapiro’s behalf. “Under the FBI’s theory, the greater the public demand for documents, the greater need for secrecy and delay,” says Baher Azmy, CCR’s legal director.