Interview With Ken Klippenstein On His FOIA Plans For Shadowproof
Shadowproof’s newest staff member, journalist Ken Klippenstein, spoke with managing editor Kevin Gosztola to discuss his new column and the document reading room he plans to curate on our site.
Ken also shares his insights and experiences with using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain documents and information from federal, state, and local governments, underscoring why this kind of journalism is so important yet often shunned by corporate media.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: What would you like to do at Shadowproof?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Over the years, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I’ve acquired hundreds upon hundreds of substantially long records, and I just haven’t had a place to put them. Shadowproof will give me the time and resources to put together a clearinghouse for all those records and to file new requests going forward—for things relevant to the news cycle and that people care about right now.
GOSZTOLA: What are a few of the things you are working on?
KLIPPENSTEIN: Donald Trump’s administration has given me no shortage of leads to chase. Things I am working on right now are looking into the effect of devastating cuts in funding to the State Department and what that means for reliance on U.S. diplomacy as opposed to kinetic military action.
Another thing is I’m looking at the new division in the FBI for investigating leaks, which I think is hugely important in lieu of the Obama administration’s unprecedented leak prosecutions and investigations, which will only accelerate under this administration.
And, generally, I’m seeking records on several kinds of misdeeds we’ve all seen in the headlines constantly from the Trump administration, many of which don’t get followed up on because people are overwhelmed. News organizations follow his tweets instead of doing the inglorious work to dredge up more contacts and details about this stuff.
GOSZTOLA: Why is it important to pursue records at the state and city level instead of solely focusing on records from the federal government?
KLIPPENSTEIN: It is important to look at local and state level FOIA because many times they’re jurisdictions overlap with the federal level. You can adopt an asymmetric strategy against the government when you go via local or state because they reply so much more quickly and because they’re so much less sophisticated in terms of their ability to conceal things and hide things and know what to withhold from people.
If you’re clever about it, many times you can get the records from state or local that you would get from the federal government, like maybe from a police department that looked into the same thing the FBI did. They just will lack the resources or sophistication to be able to stop you from getting those records.
GOSZTOLA: Would you share an example from your experience?
KLIPPENSTEIN: For example, one time I got records from the Chicago Police Department on its interactions with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency with regard to the drug trade in the state of Illinois. That is something if I had gone at it through the DEA it would have been far more Kafkaesque. Anyone with experience FOIA-ing federal departments would know that generally they are advanced and know how to duck requests.
On the other hand, while the CPD is a big police institution, they don’t have the same capabilities. And they may not have the same interests. They may not care whether a person obtains information that reflects poorly on the federal government.
GOSZTOLA: What to you is the main reason why you think the Freedom of Information Act is so valuable and a tool worth protecting, especially if it comes under threat while Trump is in office?
KLIPPENSTEIN: It gives the public a tool to find out what the government is up to, and not only what it is up to but what it is up to in our name and in our tax dollars. We pay for them to do these things and generate this information so why shouldn’t we have access to it?
You’re right to point out it could be under attack by the Trump administration. Things other requesters, like Jason Leopold, have pointed out is that they’re seeing hugely tightened treatment in terms of what is being released just under this administration. And the Obama administration was far from perfect in that regard so under this administration it appears it is getting worse.
But I think transparency is something most people see as desirable, and FOIA is something that let’s the citizen do that or a journalist do that, as opposed to people within government making their own decisions about what they’re going to tell the press or talk about.
GOSZTOLA: What have you experienced in the last seven to eight months? Is it all a continuation from Obama or are there any other new developments that you’ve had to stay ahead of because they could give you problems requesting records?
KLIPPENSTEIN: I’ve generally found the press offices to be less responsive. I don’t know if that’s because they are staffing them less because clearly the Trump administration is funding things across the board far less other than the Defense Department. So they’ve been less helpful in that regard, and obviously, they give you a biased picture of things. But they can help give you leads in terms of what to pursue and if you’re on the right track.
Aside from that, with regards to FOIA, I’ve experienced pretty much what Leopold pointed out—a general tightening of what is released and what they redacted and how quickly they respond. It’s an acceleration of negative trends that existed under the Obama administration.
GOSZTOLA: Why is it important for people to support your work, which will include curating a reading room and publishing in-depth stories on records you obtain?
KLIPPENSTEIN: FOIA is a largely thankless undertaking. People like it when the results come out and then other media is happy to steal it. I’m happy with that because I’d rather the information be out there than not. However, it is cost-prohibitive to pursue because often you’ll have to wait weeks or months, or in some cases, years for records to come back.
A lot of organizations that don’t have the mission Shadowproof has, which is really a public mission—Lots of media organizations are corporations themselves or owned by larger corporations. For that reason, their goal is the bottom line, and it just doesn’t pay to have requests sitting there and have to wait for months, even if it could really upend or hurt the political establishment and make for a good story. Given the time frame, it is just not worth it to them.
So those who fund and support my work make it possible to pursue this FOIA work that can be crucial to investigations.