Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism

WASHINGTON – They call him a "FOIA terrorist."

This is ironic, because most of Jason Leopold’s efforts at obtaining information through the Freedom of Information Act are because the so-called Global War on Terror has made it virtually impossible to do it any other way.

Plus, contrary to how members of the FBI might have felt about Leopold when they referred to him this way (an FBI source told him this), he was acting well within the law. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 and accompanied by a range of similar state measures, FOIA is no "weapon," but the best access the citizenry has to ensure against a complete blackout of public information, particularly at time when over-classification has kept so much out of reach.

"I’m just using the tools that are given to us," the longtime investigative journalist told Antiwar.com in a recent interview. "It’s the only way I am able to get information at this point. It’s like forensic journalism – I feel it is the only way to do it."

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He’s not kidding. According to Leopold’s own count, he’s filed 600 FOIA requests over the last three years and seven lawsuits regarding FOIA requests that have been denied or held-up over the course of that period. He admits, "I look forward to getting the mail," as he typically receives some sort of response every day – either a long white envelope or a large one, with the latter meaning some long-sought after document came through (redactions expected).

Over the last few years, the mailman has brought some real fruit from the vine, so to speak. Sometimes he gets leaked information from sources he’s cultivated over the years. As a result, Leopold has been able to break critical stories no one else has, and give life and detail to others. Much of his recent writing has been about the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, from which he has traveled back and forth frequently as a correspondent for Truthout and Al Jazeera America.

"The bits and pieces of information I have uncovered over the years about programs, the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners in U.S. custody and how the government responds to those revelations is now part of the historical record," he noted.

"Whether that ultimately results in accountability is not up to me."

Consider these:

The Latif Suicide and repercussions.Leopold’s dogged FOIAs and interviews allowed him to give not only a face and a name, but context to a prisoner who had taken his life after a long, tortuous existence at GTMO. Adnan Latif, 36, committed suicide on Sept. 8, 2012 in his cell. A 79-page report, obtained through one of Leopold’s FOIAs, found that prison doctors believed he died from an overdose of medication for schizophrenia. Officials believed he had been "hoarding" the pills instead of taking them each day.

But the report Leopold obtained tells us more than that. Latif, referred to only by his prisoner number – ISN156  – was a man suffering from various mental ailments including a traumatic brain injury suffered in a car wreck nearly 20 years ago. He was first captured on his way into Afghanistan (reportedly to see doctors) when he was sold for a $5,000 bounty to the Northern Alliance, which turned him over to the Americans in 2001. He was never formally charged, and a judge ordered his release from the prison in 2010. But an appeals court overturned that decision and the Supreme Court refused to take up his case, so Latif languished there.

Latif told his attorney he was being force-fed psychiatric medications, mostly for behavior. His complaints were dismissed by officials. However, the explosive internal investigation that finally made its way into Leopold’s hands says the prison contributed to Latif’s downfall because of a prison-wide breakdown of safeguards and adherence to standard operating procedures. An accompanying autopsy report found that Latif had a range of powerful prescriptions in his system – codeine, Percocet, Seroquel, Ativan, Celexa, morphine, and Remeron – painkillers and mood stabilizers that when taken together are quite dangerous, even lethal.

"It was just a damning, damning document," said Leopold, "and it really shows that it was a widespread breakdown in following procedures over a two year period that led to his death."

So far, no one has been held accountable for Latif’s suicide, despite the findings.

Documents detail new search policy that led to hunger strikes. After Latif’s suicide, the GITMO command, which comes under U.S. Southern Command, started ramping up its inmate searches, and after a series of troubling policy changes, like guards diverting the prisoners’ legal mail and searching their Korans, new genital searches were instituted in April 2013. This was in complete contradiction to earlier protocol that said such searches were off-limits due to cultural sensitivities.

The new searches spurred one of the most widespread hunger strikes, which at its height last summer involved some 106 out of the 166 prisoners there – until the media blackout in December.

This summer, Leopold was able to obtain versions of Col. John Bogdan’s six-page sworn declaration, with details justifying the genital search policy back in April.

Leopold and the prisoner advocates had to fight hard for the public release of these documents, because at the time, the warden said releasing the policy details could be used by al-Qaeda to stage an attack on the prison.

US District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the searches stopped. He said they "lack a ‘valid, rational connection’ to the legitimate government interest – security – put forward to justify them." A lower court since repealed that order and the matter is currently under appeal.

Meanwhile, Leopold was one of handful of reporters who covered the summer hunger strikes with more than a passing interest, going well beyond the press releases and talking points issued by the command. He was able to obtain a document for Al Jazeera that described the military’s updated force-feeding procedures:

"…a brutal and dehumanising medical procedure that requires them to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled in a restraint chair …The prisoners remain this way, with a 61cm – or longer – tube snaked through their nostril until a chest X-ray, or a test dose of water, confirms (liquid food) has reached their stomach."

Leopold was disappointed he and other investigative reporting did not reach further, or permeate the mainstream for long. "You would think at the height of a hunger strike it would be front page news," he shared.

Leopold continued to file a range of FOIAs – more than 50 – that remain unfulfilled and are part of a lawsuit he filed against the Department of Defense in January. "They are trying to fight ever giving over the documents," he said, which range from the current number of hunger strikers to the official list of VIP prisoners to the GTMO since 2002.

The Abu Zubaydah diaries

This low-level al-Qaeda affiliate was once water-boarded 83 times for information US officials insisted he had relating to Osama bin Laden and the supposed link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. So far, his once-thought high status in the terror group has not panned out (nor did the smoking gun between Hussein and al-Qaeda), though Zubaydah is still one of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo who have yet to be charged with anything.

Last fall, Leopold was able to obtain Zubaydah’s diaries, all six-volumes and translated from Arabic to English, which the Saudi began writing in 1990 and up until three days before his capture in 2002. The government had taken those diaries, but Zubaydah later penned three more volumes after coming to GTMO in 2006. The government rebuffed several attempts by Leopold to obtain them through FOIA but they were finally leaked to him by "a former U.S. government intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on al-Qaeda’s rise to power."

This led to a series of richly detailed stories for Al Jazeera America.

"I was working on getting those diaries for seven years," Leopold said. He wrote in November that the diaries, until now secret, had been used and cited in several 9/11 terror investigations and to justify prisoners’ indefinite detention. But reading them, it’s clear they "present a fuller picture of the high-profile prisoner, his role in the ‘war on terror,’ the roles of other boldface names in the lead-up to 9/11 and its aftermath, the training, organization and infighting among their networks, the effectiveness of torture and more."

"There is just nothing else like it out there. There are some 20,000 words in it. I think it’s just an important historical document and I am really proud of the work that went into it."

Detainees given powerful drugs for unknown reasons. In 2010, Leopold and writer/psychologist Jeffrey Kaye published a story based on Department of Defense documents obtained by Leopold that showed the US military had administered a powerful anti-malaria drug to early prisoners at Guantanamo Bay upon their arrival to Cuba – despite the fact there was no threat of the disease on the island.

"The US military administered the drug despite Pentagon knowledge that mefloquine caused severe neuropsychiatric side effects, including suicidal thoughts, hallucinations and anxiety. The drug was used on the prisoners whether they had malaria or not," the pair wrote Dec. 10, 2010. The documents were buried in an investigation of three inmate’s alleged suicides in 2006. According to their reporting, all detainees in Jan. 2002 were given a dosage of 1,250 mg of mefloquine before it was even determined whether they had malaria – "the 1,250 mg dosage is what would be given if the detainees actually had malaria. That dosage is five times higher than the prophylactic dose given to individuals to prevent the disease."

Meanwhile, Leopold was able to break stories in other arenas, including a series of pieces based on documents revealing the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies’ had monitored of 2011 Occupy Wall Street Protests. Also, in 2011, Leopold got his hands on documents that showed the Air Force was making moral and religious justifications for nuclear war in its training materials.

Leopold believes "forensic journalism" is the journalism of the future. As evidenced by the release of the Edward Snowden leaks, "the public craves documents … they want the raw material," he said. On-the-record sources have clammed for all obvious reasons over the last few years, so FOIA proves to be one of the only practical resources left if one wants to avoid the pitfalls of solely using "anonymous sources," he says.

His own path to this point has zigzagged, admittedly. Leopold wrote about it in 2006’s News Junkie, a front-row seat into his own checkerboard past as a manic reporter and addict who would do anything for a scoop, and cocaine. He lays his personal and professional transgressions bare, and details how he overcame these struggles despite being in a merciless profession that demands an edge over the competition at any cost.

Leopold has had a 20-year career – one that started as an obituary writer for The Reporter Dispatch newspaper in White Plains, and took him through a series of newspapers and outlets across the country – and some major reputation-snagging moments along the way. There’s a much disputed Salon article in which he was accused of not backing up his sources and failing to fully attribute several paragraphs to the Financial Times in a sensitive investigative piece on the Enron scandal. Then he was broadly criticized for jumping the gun on Karl Rove’s indictment in the Valerie Plame affair – a grand jury indictment that never transpired. He’s been called a "serial fabulist."

Trying to rebuild from this has only led to his current work ethos, which is by the way, drug free. He freelances and publishes at The Public Record. His investigative reporting on the BP oil spill aftermath has been quoted in mainstream outlets. He is pursuing another lawsuit to obtain the Senate Intelligence Committee and CIA torture reports. His said life now centers around his mailbox and his family, and doing journalism that is not only bolstered by documents, but forces transparency on an otherwise unaccountable government.

"I do this type of work because it needs to be done. It’s really that simple," he said. "With all due respect to the other news organizations I don’t see a lot of them using these tools the way they should."

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.