Jason Leopold, an investigative reporter for Vice who will be speaking to journalism students today at Cal State University Fullerton, is unique among national security reporters in the United States. Rather than living in Washington D.C. and wining and dining contacts at the CIA, Pentagon or various Congressional oversight committees, Leopold lives in L.A. and essentially refuses to run anonymous quotes in his articles. Instead, he relies on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, (FOIA) which turns 50 years old on July 4, 2016.
In fact, Leopold files so many FOIA requests—following them up with lawsuits when necessary—that the FBI has labelled him a “FOIA terrorist.” (Once, a government agency agreed to hand over documents to him only on the condition that he promise never to file another FOIA request in his life). Leopold’s ongoing lawsuit to force the government to hand over all of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as Secretary of State—and the government’s refusal to do so—has become a major campaign issue, especially after it was revealed that Clinton had inappropriately been using her own private email account and server to send top-secret messages relating to her government work.
Leopold had no idea about Clinton’s private email account when he filed his FOIA request back in November 2014—just a hunch that her emails might make for an interesting story. “The State Department was arguing that they shouldn’t have to release these emails and then the New York Times filed its report about her email server and that’s when it became clear what they were trying to hide,” Leopold tells the Weekly. “I found myself caught in the middle of this scandal. People look at me as partisan, when in fact I am just trying to inform the public.”
According to Leopold, Clinton’s staff has already deleted about 30,000 emails, and while it has released an equal number, tens of thousands more emails are still being withheld without explanation. “I am still pursuing those top secret emails to get them released, or at least get the government to reveal why they are top secret.”
Leopold’s work as an investigative reporter over the last several years has produced some amazing stories, including exposes on detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay, an exclusive, Emmy-nominated interview with a CIA-contracted psychologist who specialized in interrogations, and numerous FOIA-based reports on the CIA’s collaboration with Hollywood and television filmmakers. His expertise on FOIA work led him to speak about the need for strengthening the law before the House Committee on Government Oversight last year.
“Writing about covert government agencies is a battle,” says Leopold. “You are going into battle when you use the FOIA. It’s a powerful tool, but it is in dire need of reform because the more aggressively one uses the FOIA the more the government agencies will do to withhold information. It needs to be fixed.”
Leopold’s presentation takes place at 11 a.m. today at Room 1502 of Miyahlo Hall, 800 N. State College, Fullerton.