My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request

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. 

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