Spenser Mestel | Longreads | September 2017 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)
On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.
When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.
“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”
Later, Barnette moved to Santa Rosa, where he attended a community college and became involved with Angela Davis’s trial. After her acquittal, he campaigned on behalf of other political prisoners, was active in the labor movement, and eventually opened a bar in San Francisco. Barnette had always wondered what information the government had on him, and in 2012, his ex-wife decided to act. After googling the phrase “how to file a Freedom of Information Act request,” she got Barnette’s permission to petition the FBI for his file.
Four years later, a nondescript CD-ROM arrived in the mail. It contained the FBI’s 500-page dossier on Barnette: his early career selling newspapers for the Nation of Islam, his location within the Black Panthers’ hierarchy, and details about the extensive network of government informants that had infiltrated the Compton chapter of the group. It included interviews with employers, coworkers, friends, even a high school teacher of his. The file confirmed that the FBI, who had never charged Barnette with a crime, had heavily investigated him for nearly a decade.
For the Barnettes, the dossier offered satisfying validation of their long-held suspicions. (It confirmed, for instance, that the FBI was involved in Barnette’s termination from the post office.) But the surveillance wasn’t particularly shocking. The aggressive and often illegal activities of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program were already well known. (A 2008 FOIA request by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism revealed that the FBI had tracked journalist David Halberstam for nearly 20 years.) But the request was filed during a fraught time for the Freedom of Information Act, which turns 50 this year. In 2015, while the Barnettes waited for their small piece of the puzzle to arrive, the Obama administration, which prided itself on its transparency, withheld a record number of FOIA materials, denying 77 percent of requests. And when information was released, it occasionally had devastating consequences.
In 2014, following an investigation centered on the responses to more than two dozen FOIA requests, the Washington Post revealed that hundreds of American drones had crashed since 2001. A 2015 state-level FOIA request ultimately sunk Boston’s bid to host the Olympic Games after it was revealed that public officials had omitted billions of dollars in anticipated costs from the proposal released to the public. In 2014, when investigative journalist Jason Leopold requested all of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of state, he was looking for clues about how Clinton might govern as president. Instead, he catalyzed one of the most catastrophic political scandals of the 21st century and set off a chain of events that would profoundly affect the presidential election two years later.
Every presidential administration dating back to Lyndon Johnson has tried to subvert or evade the spirit and letter of FOIA in some way or another, but the act poses a unique threat to the Trump administration. In the past two years especially, Donald Trump and his associates have closely guarded potentially damning information about Trump’s taxes, businesses, and dealings with Russia. In the short term, at least, FOIA responses are unlikely to reveal any salacious details about the commander in chief. Under the Presidential Records Act, documents from Trump’s office won’t be subject to open-records requests until at least five years after he leaves the White House.
In addition to withholding facts, the Trump administration has also dismissed their importance altogether. Since taking office, the president has told a public lie or falsehood more days than not, and when confronted or corrected, he has dismissed his critics as paid shills or disseminators of “fake news.” Information requested under FOIA and then released by the government, on the other hand, may prove more difficult to dismiss as partisan hackery, though Trump has proven remarkably deft at defying every norm of political discourse.
But, even under these dire circumstances, when it seems like the truth has never mattered less, FOIA is still a valuable weapon.
It’s easy to imagine the Freedom of Information Act as a single law, designed to shine like a beacon into the darkest corners of government. The reality is far more complex. In 1955, John E. Moss, a Democratic congressman from Sacramento, decided to make government transparency his raison d’être. Moss, who had grown up during the Depression and had worked as an appliance salesman before joining the navy, considered himself a one-term congressman without much to lose — he’d won his district by four-tenths of a point. As head of a special House subcommittee on government information, Moss hosted sympathetic legal experts and reporters, including Harold Cross, a journalist and member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 1953, Cross published a report on government secrecy called “The People’s Right to Know.” In a written statement filed with Moss’s subcommittee, he wrote, “There is no hope of obtaining inspection of public records not specifically opened by Congress, except through the courtesy of the Government.”
This was an era in which President Eisenhower and members of his staff increasingly used the veil of “executive privilege” to withhold information, arguing that this was necessary to protect national security. Moss pushed back. In 1960, according to the New York Times, Moss claimed that “more Pentagon ‘secrets’ were imposed now than during two World Wars,” which had resulted in the creation of “at least a million cubic feet of storage space . . . that contained documents that should not be withheld from public view.” However, Moss was unable to find support from his Republican colleagues to force the hand of a president from their own party.
When John F. Kennedy became president the following year, Moss persisted. Kennedy’s promise to rein in executive privilege was echoed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. As the war escalated in Vietnam, however, Johnson’s administration became less and less transparent, and eventually, like every president had before him, he tried to evade mandatory disclosure. In April 1965, he promised to make “all information possible” available to Congress and remarked that the bill before the subcommittee, which would become the Freedom of Information Act, was an “important subject.” Meanwhile, his Department of Justice opposed the legislation as an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers.
But political winds were finally shifting in Moss’s favor. Republicans, now outnumbered two to one in both the House and Senate, became vehement advocates of government transparency. In November 1965, Gerald Ford, then a congressman, called the president “arrogant” for his “opposition to freedom of information legislation which would permit the public to know what is going on in the government which it pays for.” When Moss’s bill made it out of committee and onto the floor of the House, the Freedom of Information Act passed unanimously after less than an hour of debate.
President Johnson almost let the bill die via pocket veto during Congress’s summer recess of 1966. Faced with overwhelming political opposition to a veto, though, he quietly signed the bill from his Texas ranch, issuing a statement that expressed his “deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”
However, as the National Security Archive, a nonprofit housed at George Washington University, points out, Johnson’s “signing statement includes more about the need to keep secrets than the urgency of openness.” The day before the law took effect, in 1967, most bureaucrats were anticipating business as usual. As the Associated Press reported at the time, few federal agencies “expect important changes in the way they disclose public records.”
Since its creation, FOIA has been amended, subverted, and amended again. After Watergate, Congress shortened the time frame for agency compliance, introduced sanctions for improperly holding information, and eliminated fees for groups working in the public interest. Calling the new requirements “unconstitutional and unworkable,” President Ford vetoed the bill. Congress overrode him. In 1982, President Reagan issued an executive order making it easier for the government to withhold sensitive information, which the Clinton administration reversed soon after Clinton took office. In the wake of 9/11, the pendulum swung toward greater secrecy, but in 2007 President Bush signed the OPEN Government Act, which eliminated fees for bloggers, who were now considered journalists, and created a government-wide FOIA-compliance office.
President Obama expanded Bush’s improvements and called for the most transparent administration in history. One of his contributions was to require agencies to publicly post any information that has been requested three times, and in 2011, the FBI launched the Vault, whose description sounds more like the promo for a greatest-hits album than a record of many of the organization’s unconstitutional activities: “Included here are many new FBI files that have been released to the public but never added to this website . . . and new, previously unreleased files.” Among other documents, the vault contains 60 pages on John Steinbeck, 487 on James Baldwin, 676 on the Ku Klux Klan, and, of course, thousands on the Black Panther Party. The Obama administration’s overall relationship to FOIA, however, could best be described as tepid. During the last year of Obama’s presidency, his lawyers spent a record-breaking $36.2 million fighting FOIA requests.
After five decades of FOIA, the accrued amendments and exemptions to the law mean that a request isn’t processed by one centralized bureau but 282 separate federal agencies collectively tasked with handling nearly 800,000 requests each year. The most infamous of these agencies claim to be involved in the protection of national security, an obvious rationale given by the government for withholding information and the reason the records of the NSA, the CIA, and, to a certain extent, the FBI are largely impervious to FOIA requests. However, every agency has its own procedures, backlogs, contradictions, and shortcomings. While the law’s original intent was to strengthen democracy through greater transparency, every segment of American society now uses it for reasons both frivolous and profound, revealing the difficulties inherent in translating the noble goal of government transparency into practice. In that regard, it’s best to think of FOIA not as a master key that opens floodgates but rather as the leaks in a wall that’s constantly being patched.
The executive branch currently employs over 4,000 full-time employees to receive, process, and fulfill FOIA requests. To better understand the costs involved in maintaining such a massive bureaucracy, I decided a few months ago to submit requests for information about spending on FOIA fulfillment to the 14 offices of the most requested department: the Department of Homeland Security, which in 2016 received 325,780 FOIA requests. Expecting a maze of arcane terms, legal citations, and byzantine postal requirements, I gave myself a few hours. When I visited FOIA.gov, though, I found an FAQ section complete with videos, a primer on how to file a request, and a full directory of government agencies. On the directory page, when I clicked the logo for the DHS, a drop-down menu appeared giving the names of its component offices, and I chose the first one listed, the Headquarters and Privacy Office. Up popped the corresponding FOIA officer’s name, mailing address, phone and fax numbers, and email address, which I copied into Gmail. Then I was stuck.
Filing a request is intimidating in its simplicity. Though bureaucratic requirements are often complex and inflexible, they are at least formulaic, and the freedom to ask the government for whatever I wanted left me unsure even of the appropriate tone to strike: “Dear Karen” or “Officer Neuman”? I split the difference — “Ms. Neuman” — and paused again. The FAQ said that “any agency record” was potentially available, so could I just request the line-by-line budget for the 2016 fiscal year? Or should I enumerate all the possible costs of FOIA-related activities, such as those for personnel, search and retrieval, records duplication, office space, electricity, and internet bandwidth? Should I demand to know Ms. Neuman’s salary and attach a copy of the relevant legislation requiring her to disclose the information. Even when submitting a request using the online form provided, with its comfortingly recognizable information fields, the task still felt like a high-stakes icebreaker, the equivalent of someone asking, “What kind of music do you like?”
This is the first significant hurdle to using FOIA— requesters must know what they’re looking for even though they don’t necessarily know what’s available. Agencies keep record systems that often allude to the places certain materials may live, but the law also allows FOIA officers to deny inquiries that are vague, overly broad, or burdensome. The onus is on the requester; as Ryan Shapiro, a graduate student at MIT who has filed hundreds of requests with the FBI, put it in an interview published on the website MuckRock, “We don’t really have a Freedom of Information Act in the country as much as we have an open records act. One can’t request information. One needs to request records.” In the end, I listed all the costs I could think of, attempting to impress Officer Neuman with the phrase “including but not limited to.” Later, I spoke to Max Galka, a data enthusiast who created FOIA Mapper, which he designed to help citizens better navigate the FOIA labyrinth. He reminds visitors to the website that FOIA officers aren’t necessarily lawyers and advises requesters to describe the documents they want in plain English.
For the moment, I was thrilled that the process had taken only about 20 minutes, from logging on to FOIA.gov to sending my last email. Almost immediately, I received an automatic acknowledgment of my inquiry. A request made, however, is not the same as a request granted — and the space in between is where the difference between ideal and real becomes most evident.
Although the law requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 business days, many fail to comply with this deadline. In 2012, Bloomberg News made requests for information on taxpayer-funded travel from 20 cabinet-level agencies. The Small Business Administration complied on time, five other agencies responded after the deadline, another set its fulfillment date more than a year in the future, and the remaining 14, including the Department of Justice — the office that oversees FOIA compliance — didn’t respond at all. With regard to my request, the three offices that account for 91 percent of Department of Homeland Security inquiries — Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services — all missed the deadline.
Some of the problem with fulfilling requests is funding: As part of a 2016 amendment to FOIA, agencies were mandated to make proactive disclosures and decrease wait times, but the additional workload this created wasn’t matched with additional funds. The more fundamental issue, though, is the volume of requests. FOIA backlogs are unevenly distributed among agencies; unsurprisingly, the Department of Homeland Security has the largest (35,374 requests). Its first agency to respond to me, coming in at fewer than 48 hours, was the Privacy Office, whose 599 inquiries last year represented less than 0.2 percent of DHS’s 325,780 total requests. That day I also heard from the Coast Guard (less than 1 percent of DHS’s request volume), the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (less than 0.1 percent), and the Science and Technology Directorate, which received 85 requests last year (not even one-thousandth of a percent).
Within the massive backlog at DHS, some requests are duplicates. Though FOIA.gov cautions users to “see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available” before making a request, I ignored that advice completely. Every agency that responded to me denied my request on the basis that the information I sought was already available in the agency’s end-of-year FOIA report. Foreseeing this kind of citizen carelessness, the Justice Department argued against the bill in 1965: “The requirement that information be made available to all and sundry, including the idly curious,” the department’s memo read, “could create serious practical problems for the agencies.” In my case, the Justice Department’s assessment was spot-on, and my request could hardly have presented the world’s best example of idle curiosity.
Nor are all requests obviously and intimately linked to the public good. For example, after Beyoncé truthers accused the singer of lip-synching at Obama’s 2013 inauguration, Bloomberg News unsuccessfully submitted FOIA requests for all emails from that January 22 and 23 related to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (FOIA requests are themselves public information.) When Stephen Robert Morse, the creator of MyTwoCensus.com, a “nonpartisan watchdog of the 2010 Census,” began to feel that his FOIA requests weren’t being taken seriously enough, he committed to sending five requests each week throughout the summer of that year. In a 2014 letter to the EPA, Austin Gillespie, a resident of Salem, Connecticut, wrote, “This is a dumb request, but recently I have heard a number of stories about secret (but possibly public to an extent) records of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, etc. sightings in . . . my home town . . . I want to believe, but find it hard with no proof.”
In terms of what drives the volume of requests, however, idle curiosity takes a distant second to naked commercialism. An analysis conducted by Max Galka this year of 229,000 requests made to 85 agencies, the largest study on FOIA users to date, showed that 39 percent of requesters were businesses (excluding law firms); the next-largest category, private citizens, represented 20 percent of requesters. Primarily directed at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the businesses’ requests sought a commercial advantage wherever they could: A hedge fund looking to acquire a pharmaceutical company might FOIA the FDA for information on adverse clinical trials, or a soft-drink company might ask for information about the winning bid on an army contract from the previous year. Because entities aren’t limited in how many requests they can file, and because the government must obtain consent before fulfilling requests that it determines will cost more than $25, there’s little disincentive to spray and pray and potentially uncover a lucrative secret. “It really does feel like inside information, even though it’s all technically public,” Galka told me.
FOIA’s potential to uncover valuable secrets also explains why it’s one of few issues to consistently enjoy broad bipartisan support. As a young congressman, Donald Rumsfeld cosponsored the original FOIA bill and railed against Lyndon Johnson’s “continuing tendency toward managed news and suppression of public information.” As political tides shifted, though, so did Rumsfeld’s appetite for transparency. When he became Gerald Ford’s chief of staff in 1974, he pushed the new president to veto proposed amendments to FOIA. Today, politicians seem to better understand how to weaponize public records. Both parties use the law as a method for conducting opposition research, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leading the charge: Over the past three years, the organization has filed more requests than the Associated Press (the leading news agency), and almost four times as many as the ACLU. Yet no matter how seemingly frivolous, avaricious, partisan, or costly to taxpayers certain requests may seem, the experts I spoke with were unwilling to condemn them outright.
Galka gave the example of prospective homeowners who want to know whether a given property is adjacent to, say, an underground drilling site, but don’t have the time or know-how to find out. Environmental-advisory firms use FOIA to provide that service, leading to a more informed public and better use of government data. Instead of prohibiting these kinds of inquiries, Galka suggests making up for their costs by charging double in fees from commercial entities, many of whom “classify themselves as media companies because they have a blog on their website,” he says. Similarly, Lauren Harper, the director of communications for the National Security Archive, agreed that FOIA offices, not requesters, should be the ones to change. “You do get frustrated because, on the one hand, there are these exceptional backlogs,” she told me. But, she added, “I think the onus is more on agencies to streamline their processes.”
Though decentralized, FOIA offices are still government bureaucracies. From the Headquarters and Privacy Office, I received two emails 24 hours apart and a mailed letter a few weeks later, all containing identical information. In response to a survey conducted this year by the National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight, 60 percent of FOIA processors said there are inefficiencies in FOIA processing, which have persisted even after the disastrous example set by Hillary Clinton’s State Department. In fact, even with almost four years of advance warning that all federal offices would have to track and store government emails by 2016, one in six agencies failed even to submit required self-assessments about whether they would meet the deadline. The list of offenders included powerhouses like the Department of Homeland Security, but also agencies not known for their secrecy, like the Marine Mammal Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
At some point, however, it becomes difficult to delineate technological incompetence from departmental recalcitrance. Often the agencies’ search methods are questionable. “If I want something on Occupy Wall Street,” says Jason Leopold, who sent the original request for Secretary Clinton’s emails, “the file could be named OWS or something entirely different, like a code word.” For transliterated names, the possibilities are almost endless (Muammar Gaddafi, for example, has 112 potential spellings — and Michael Morisy, the founder of MuckRock, which serves as both a clearinghouse for FOIA results and a service for filing requests, has heard of government employees intentionally misspelling words to thwart searches. In 2013, the Associated Press uncovered that government officials were using secret email accounts, potentially for the same purpose.
Other times, the way in which a request is fulfilled suggests that the agency is less than eager to turn over the information. When Leopold received his requested information about Clinton’s emails from the State Department, it came late on a Friday — a government favorite — the same day Clinton announced Tim Kaine as her running mate, and three days before the Democratic National Convention. When Max Galka requested a database from the Department of Labor, he asked that it be delivered as an Excel file. The spreadsheet arrived as a 763-page printout that wasn’t machine-readable when scanned. When two reporters for National Geographic asked to know why the Department of Agriculture removed a public database from its website, the agency responded by delivering 1,771 pages, each of which was fully redacted except for an exemption code printed in the top-left corner of the page.
To stymie requests, a department can also try to cut them off at the source. In March, the FBI announced that it would no longer accept FOIA requests by email. Instead, information seekers would have to submit by fax or snail mail, or use a new electronic portal that would limit FOIA applicants to one request per day and accept submissions only from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday. After a public outcry, the FBI renounced the plan, but such controversy over FOIA abuses is rare, and judicial oversight is even rarer.
When I received my rejection letters, all included instructions on how to appeal my decision, another requirement added by the 2016 revision to FOIA law. Because I got what I wanted, I chose not to appeal, which Lauren Harper tells me was a mistake: “Absolutely always appeal. At least a third of the time, an agency will release more information.” Only 2 percent of requesters make this decision, however, and roughly 70 percent of appeals are directed at just three agencies: the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. In 2016, 44 agencies received no appeals at all.
Among the few FOIA requesters who appeal, even fewer exercise their right to litigate, which Representative Moss called the bill’s “most important” provision, one that protects citizens “against arbitrary and capricious denials.” Between 2009 and 2014, only 1,672 cases — out of 3.8 million requests — went to trial. Just 7 percent of those appealers both won their cases and recouped their legal fees. In the face of such dire financial odds, law firms are reluctant to get involved, especially because of how complex the case law can be. FOIA provides exemptions for nine major information categories — primarily national security, personal privacy, and law-enforcement techniques — but it also has, as Michael Morisy described it to me, certain “Swiss cheese” carve-outs for powerful interests. For example, after Unilever sued Hampton Creek, the manufacturer of the vegan-mayonnaise product Just Mayo, for causing “irreparable harm” to its own mayonnaise brands, Ryan Shapiro submitted a FOIA request to the American Egg Board, a trade group overseen by the Department of Agriculture. The internal emails released suggested that the AEG had violated up to five laws; several months later, 14 other food boards persuaded Congress to include language in the 2017 House agricultural appropriations bill exempting the groups from FOIA requirements.
Ultimately, I found the information I was looking for. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security spent $57,066,929.61 on FOIA-related activities, including personnel costs, litigation, and, presumably, search and retrieval, duplication, office space, electricity, and internet bandwidth. As a whole, the government spent $478.5 million on FOIA, three times the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, and recouped less than 1 percent of that in fees.
This information was surprising, but what had a bigger effect on me was the realization that I had started to see the world through the lens of what I could request under FOIA. After I observed a man walking naked down the beach at Fire Island, I asked the National Park Service for the number of arrests they’d made for public nudity over the past five years. After Greyhound charged me $18 to book a ticket in someone else’s name, I asked the Federal Trade Commission for a list of every complaint lodged against the company for the past five years. After my subway train was stopped in the tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn because of an “unauthorized person walking on the tracks,” I asked the Metro Transportation Authority Police Department for its safety protocols. The information I received was never as salacious as I’d hoped, but that was beside the point. The act of requesting — and participating more fully in my country’s government — was an achievement in itself.
Even though FOIA doesn’t always produce its intended results, it does have its merits. For one, it makes public officials more careful about what they put in writing. As a municipal employee in Boston told me, “Our unofficial motto in the office is, ‘Dance like nobody’s watching. Email like it will be read aloud in a deposition.’” Another is that the U.S. government is often more willing to release information that embarrasses governments other than itself. In 2015, 25 high-ranking Argentine military officers and two former presidents were on trial in Buenos Aires, and the National Security Archive provided the prosecution with over 800 declassified documents, primarily sourced from the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. State Department. Partly thanks to these files, which were cited over 150 times during the prosecution’s closing statements, 18 of the men were convicted of the kidnapping, torturing, and disappearance of 117 dissidents between 1975 and 1980.
During that era, while U.S.-backed dictatorships were terrorizing South America, another group was mobilizing in Argentina: the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Its members, women whose children had been disappeared by the regime, gathered in front of the presidential palace, demanding information. After Argentina’s Dirty War ended and its mass graves were uncovered, these mothers persisted. Even decades later, when it had become clear that their children would never come home, they continued to protest. They still needed answers.
When Rodney Barnette finally received his 500-page dossier from the FBI, it had no practical purpose. It couldn’t be used to indict J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972. It wouldn’t help Angela Davis, who’s now a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, nor would it get back Barnette’s job at the post office. Still, no matter how reluctantly given, delayed, or redacted they were, the files offered official validation of his long-held suspicion: the government had surveilled, intimidated, and harassed him. This is not a trivial point.
Maintaining a belief that our elected officials work on behalf of the people has never seemed a more quixotic activity. Despite losing the popular vote by 2.8 million votes, Donald Trump became president of the United States. Despite massive protests, historically low approval ratings, injunctive court orders, insubordination from cabinet members and military leaders, resignations from key staffers, congressional probes, civil lawsuits, the collapse of two advisory councils, and condemnation from within his own party, Trump continues to tweet, pardon, and issue executive orders. In such an environment, it’s easy to believe that we citizens have no real say in the operation of our democracy. However, one overworked and underfunded part of the government exists solely to serve the public. For Rodney Barnette, the resolution of his case provided neither compensation nor contrition, but after decades of being a passive subject, he was finally able to demand that the FBI do something for him. And they did it.
In an act of artistic reclamation, Barnette’s daughter repurposed her father’s FOIA materials and presented them in a solo exhibition in New York City. Hanging on the wall, annotated by many different hands, it was clear that, from their genesis on an officer’s typewriter to their ultimate presentation as a scanned PDF, the files had been passed from agent to agent, desk to desk. At its core, the surveillance of Rodney Barnette was a bureaucratic endeavor, and ironically it took an even larger bureaucracy to expose it. “You know what?” Barnette said, surrounded by hundreds of files that had been covered in pink spray paint and rhinestones. “Seeing it on the wall, out in public, I feel free now.”
Spenser Mestel is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and is currently a freelance writer in Brooklyn.