Pin It
Submit to Reddit

"It's Been Hectic" 

Life gets complicated for man who broke Pentagon's ban

Since releasing hundreds of pictures of flag-draped coffins belonging to American war dead on his website, the 34-year-old Russ Kick has been a busy man, having been interviewed by news outlets from around the world. Since Dover Air Force Base first released the photos to him a few weeks back, Kick has been dubbed a "First Amendment activist" by most mainstream media outlets, which -- as the author of some half-dozen books -- rankles the writer a bit. While he did obtain the pictures through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Kick would like it known that he is an author first and foremost, even if his subject matter is often ripped from -- or, in some cases, creating -- today's headlines.

Creative Loafing: In the wake of the Dover incident, the popular press anointed you with the title "First Amendment activist." How do you feel about the title?

Russ Kick: I did find it odd that "First Amendment activist" was what the press chose. Apparently these crack reporters didn't realize that I've published eight books, the last five of which are available in all the chain bookstores, in independent bookstores, on, and through the Quality Paperback Book Club. Plus, You Are Being Lied To is used as a textbook in some college journalism courses.

Apparently, though, no journalist realized any of this. So instead of being identified by my profession (writer and editor), I was an "activist." Of course, I am an activist for free speech and against official secrecy, but identifying me primarily in that way probably didn't do anything to bolster my credibility.

What's your life been like since the release of the Dover shots?

Hectic. I've done six TV interviews, many radio interviews, and countless interviews with print outlets. My email and snail mail are overflowing with supportive mail, hate mail, donations, and leads.

When did you first start What made you decide to go with the Orwellian reference?

I started in July 2002. I read 1984 in 9th grade, and it impacted the way I viewed government power. Orwell's concept of the memory hole crystallizes what governments try to do -- change the past and airbrush the present.

What do you think is the best way for the average citizen to get more involved in obtaining Freedom of Information requests and other such documents? How did you start?

The best way to start is to read online guides to using the Freedom of Information Act. That's how I started. It's easy to learn how to make a request. Dealing with the denials, stonewalling, excessive fees, buck-passing, bureaucratic stubbornness, and outright lies is the hard part. That's more a matter or trial and error, plus sheer determination. I like to say that the slogan for FOIA is the same as for the strategy game Othello: "A minute to learn. A lifetime to master."

At what point did you first start writing about government misdeeds?

I started writing professionally in 1991 for the small magazines Gauntlet and Factsheet Five. My first book, Outposts, came out in May 1995. I started writing for the Village Voice in April 2000. I wrote around 10 articles -- including a cover story -- and the short-lived column "Web-O-Matic." I stopped writing articles in general because doing two books a year was eating up my time.

I do have thousands of pages of backlogged documents that I'd like to post. And I'd like to organize the material on the site by topic, agency, etc., but that will have to wait a few months. Right now I'm working on 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know, Vol. 2. It'll dig up neglected facts about Gandhi, George Washington, Native American slaves, bioweapons, pot, air travel, female rapists, the Bible, and other such juicy topics.

When did you first hatch the idea to go after the Dover photos? I've heard it said you just decided to give it the ol' "college try." How many such "tries" are successful, usually?

I read about the Pentagon's directive forbidding the release of the photos in October 2003, and I sent the request two weeks later. I've filed well over 200 requests. More than a third are still in process. Of those that have resulted in final decisions, at best one-half have resulted in a release of at least some of what I requested.

When I made the request for the Dover photos, I knew it was a longshot. The release seems to violate the Pentagon's directive, so I knew it was a one in a million shot. But I figured it would cost me just a few minutes and a stamp to try. I posted them [on the website] late on April 21. I sent out a notice about the photos to a FOIA mailing list and an investigative reporting mailing list (both of which have a lot of mainstream journalists on them), plus a few bloggers, Drudge, and a couple of reporters I've previously had contact with. I do this every once in a while, when I get something I feel is newsworthy. I'm almost always universally ignored.

Anyway, I went to bed. When I woke up, CBS was calling because they wanted to send over a camera crew to tape a segment for the Evening News. While that was being set up, ABC called. They wanted to fly me out to New York to appear on Good Morning America the next day, so my fiancee and I had two hours to get ready. In the car on the way to the airport, through the airport, and onto the plane, I was talking with print reporters.

What are your upcoming "archeological" goals? I've heard about your interest in investigating pre-9/11 airline stock fluctuations.

I have scores of FOIA requests pending, and I'm always sending in more. I'm trying to get the SEC's report on the suspicious trading right before 9/11. Just days before the attacks, unknown parties bought huge amounts of put options for American Airlines, United, the company that insures the World Trade Center, and other stocks that were sure to tank. With a put option, you make money if a stock goes down.

These suspicious trades and the investigations into them by the SEC and other agencies were reported by AP, NYT, Law Journal, and a few others. Harvey Pitt, who was then Chair of the SEC, told Congress in late September 2001 that finding out who made these trades was his agency's number-one priority. So when I recently asked the SEC for their report on this, they replied that they have no idea what I'm talking about -- "What investigation?" I sent them some news articles about it, including the one that quotes Pitt. They wrote back and said that they still can't figure out what investigation I'm talking about, so they have to deny the request in full. They are, of course, completely full of shit, and I've appealed this ridiculous denial. Their own Chairman said that this investigation was the SEC's top priority, and now they pretend that they don't know anything about it? This is probably the most insulting lie I've ever dealt with during my adventures in FOIA-land.

The Internet is obviously a big part of what you do. What sort of things have you been able to come up with solely using Internet sleuthery?

I've managed to resurrect some web sites and portions of sites: Drug paraphernalia sites that were shut down by the feds (including Tommy Chong's), the creepy pyramid-eye-death-ray logo for the defunct Information Awareness Office, a deletion the CDC made to their Ricin fact sheet, adverse events logs that the FDA pulled off their site, (and) White House's altering of its headline about the end of combat in Iraq.

With your success, do you have people starting to come to you with ideas and tips?

Yes, fairly often. Most of the time they're just giving me the URL of an interesting webpage, but I do hear from people who have dug up deleted content on their own.

Let's say you read something that piques your interest. What's your process from there?

In general, I'll Google the important names, documents, titles, etc. that piqued my interest. Once I find more information, I determine how I can go about getting the information /documents. Through a FOIA request? In an out-of-print book? From a particular individual?

How often do government and other agencies not respond at all, or else try to stonewall you at every turn?

At least 10 percent of the requests will never garner any response unless I rattle the agency's cage. Others will take months or years to get anywhere. Then there's the sandbagging and the outright denials. In all, maybe 15 to 20 percent of my requests result in a quick, complete, and painless release of information.

Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Speaking of News_feature.html


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Creative Loafing encourages a healthy discussion on its website from all sides of the conversation, but we reserve the right to delete any comments that detract from that. Violence, racism and personal attacks that go beyond the pale will not be tolerated.

Search Events
items in Creative Loafing Charlotte More in Creative Loafing Charlotte pool

© 2018 Womack Newspapers, Inc.
Powered by Foundation