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March 15, 2017, 11:29 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

FOIA the Dead uses The New York Times’ obituaries to shine a light on FBI surveillance, for the living

“The dream of doing this is to uncover someone that you would not expect to be under FBI surveillance, and discover that they are.”

“Reader, would you be surprised to learn that you had been a terrorist suspect?” The author William T. Vollmann wrote in Harper’s in 2013 about the process of FOIAing his FBI file and discovering that he had been a Unabomber suspect. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates uncovered an FBI file for his father, William Paul Coates, a Black Panther in Baltimore. “I thought of Hoover’s FBI, which harassed three generations of black activists,” he wrote in his Atlantic cover story “My President Was Black”: “Whether this generation of black activists and their allies should be afraid.”

Parker Higgins hopes to track down more stories like these with his new project, FOIA the Dead. Higgins first became familiar with the FOIA process and transparency activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where he worked for five years as a copyright activist. “The obituary page has always fascinated me,” he said, “not just as an activist, but as someone alive in the world.”

A person’s FBI file becomes available to the public at the moment they die. Higgins wrote a script that lets him automatically send a FOIA request for the FBI file of every public figure listed in The New York Times’ obituary pages (not the paid death notices). So far, he has sent 1,300 requests, roughly two-thirds of which have been processed so far. Higgins got back FBI files for about 29 of them, and in a roughly equal number of cases, he was told he’d need to file a second request because the files had been moved to the National Archive.

“The dream of doing this is to uncover someone that you would not expect to be under FBI surveillance, and discover that they are,” he said. “A lot of the people who are in the obituary pages right now are notable for their involvement in the Civil Rights movement or were Black Panthers. We’ve heard stories of potential FBI overreach [in these movements], but now those files are potentially available. In order to find those, you just need to be requesting, a lot.”

Higgins posts each file he receives to his website, along with a brief description of the person it’s for. Many of the files are for activists. “If they’re a public enough activist to get a Times obituary, they frequently have an FBI file,” Higgins said, noting that in many cases the activists were aware that the FBI had files on them and had requested them in their own lifetimes. Among them:

Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor who served as a translator in the Nuremberg trials before emigrating to the U.S., worked as an activist for various causes over a span of more than five decades. Her FBI file covers those five decades, and the overwhelming majority concerns housing discrimination cases she helped prepare in the 1970s.

Michael Mariotte was a prominent anti-nuclear activist throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Before that, in 1973, he’d gotten the FBI’s attention as a member of the Youth International Party and a potential protestor at Richard Nixon’s inauguration.

Higgins launched FOIA the Dead on March 1. It’s a personal project that he’s funding himself, though he’d ultimately like it to serve more of a “clearinghouse” function. “I don’t have subject-matter expertise on any of the people I’m filing about,” he said. “I’d love to start working with people who know the most interesting parts of the files I’m getting. It could be cool if I could work with other people to see if there are stories in here, maybe annotate the files. That’s a longer-term goal.”

By coincidence, the day the project launched, the FBI stopped taking FOIA requests via email, which was what Higgins’ script had relied on. It now takes requests through an E-FOIA portal. “That was underway for a long time before the election,” Higgins said. “Its actual rollout comes at a time when people are really concerned about the future of transparency law.” The new portal works well, he said, but it is resistant to the type of automation that he’d used previously.

Higgins had also discovered, on the day we spoke, that he’d been added to the FBI’s “vexsome filers” list, which also includes BuzzFeed senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold and national security journalist Alexa O’Brien. “It’s as much of a recognition as you can get from them,” he said — unless, of course, they are also keeping a secret file on you.

Photo by Brian Dailey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 15, 2017, 11:29 a.m.
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