Requester's Voice: John Young

Requester’s Voice: John Young

The Cryptome founder on how FOIA has become a confidence game

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For lovers of primary documents, there are few sites as rewarding, and beguiling, as Cryptome. A relatively unadorned site operating since 1996, it is host to tens of thousands of documents, many generated by various government agencies around the world, with a focus on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance. In today’s Requester’s Voice, founder John Young shares the method to the site’s madness, how broken public access poisons media and democracy, and why he suggests spending just one hour a year on FOIA.

Cryptome is a repository for all sorts of documents, data, and mirrored websites. How do you decide what is a good fit for the site, and where does the material come from?

Material focuses on fits infosec, comsec, spying (all kinds, gov-com-edu-org- personal), and the underlying technology of those.

Material comes from thousands of contributors from gov-com-edu-org-personal, some unknown, some who wish to reman anonymous, others who wish to be identified or don’t care.

How much is from FOIA Cryptome’s administrators have filed, and do you get contributions from others who have used FOIA?

Cryptome does a few FOIAs a year but not many lately due to very uninformative responses, better responses before 9/11 much worse after 9/11. We no longer trust FOIA to be forthcoming, instead a deliberate refusal to release under guise of compliance.

We get a couple of dozen FOIA contributions per year from others, especially from those who know how to be persistent and overcome the stonewalling.

We think the unresponsive FOIA system and its over-controlling secretkeepers, guided by a public-be-damned policy, the best justification to disclose by fiercely imaginative, unrelenting methods by the entire populace unfettered by anti-democratic secrecy and non-doclosure agreements.

Cryptome has been running since 1996. A lot of other primary document sites, like, have risen and fallen in that time. Why has Cryptome stuck around? For other starting projects, any advice on building for the long term?

Self-funding is crucial. Therefore:

  • Keep the operation small in participants and cheap.
  • Don’t do it full time for that leads to obsession, desire for recognition, susceptibility to takeover, burn-out, disillusion.

What was your first FOIA request, and how did it go? Why did you try using public records in the first place?

Don’t remember the first. We were advised to use FOIA and it worked up to 9/11.

Where does FOIA shine as an accountability tool, and where does it fall short?

It no longer shines, is quite the opposite. Stonewalling, delay, brush-off, lying are normal. It is a delusion for ordinary requestors and a bitch of a challenge for professionals. Churning has become a way of life for FOIA, costly as hell for little results. In short, it is a confidence game.

Where does the media fall short in using FOIA?

Most don’t use it and for good reason, little can be obtained by FOIA, so the media cultivate insiders to barter favoritism for coverage. This is a travesty of public trust: the media and their insider sources operate a corrupt system. The best example of this is the way the Snowden material is being handled: vetted with the gov, monetized by the media.

Have document leakers taken on some of the role FOIA was meant to play in recent years? Do you see dangers here?

Yes, inevitably, FOIA failure and increase in secretkeeping has led to more leaks, which is a healthy response not a danger. The danger is caused by hoarding information which should be public by again gov-com-edu-org-personal. Now the media, especially the national security coverage, has adopted the means and methods of official spies – breaking laws, exaggerating value information stolen, boosting costs for public access, warning of danger to change the system.

How often does FOIA come into your work, and in what contexts?

Not much these days, for reasons listed above. It has been several years since we have received good current FOIA material. We do scavenge FOIA releases at gov-edu-org sites, looking for overlooked gems and finding a few. As you know quite a few FOIA releases go to requestors who do not publish the material, some not right away, some never, as far as we can tell. Presumably the unpublished material is sold, used for commerce, buried in little read books or paraphrased to appear original.

Any particular areas that you’ve found your FOIA requests increasing?

No, diminishing. We think the FOIA system should be closed as a money-wasting fraud.

How many FOIA requests do you file?

One a year, usually by request of a party who does not want to be logged by the spies who exploit FOIA requests.

What’s your favorite request you ever filed? How did it turn out?

By far a request to NSA for TEMPEST material. We go a big wad in several tranches. Nothing like it since.

Next best, a request to INSCOM has led to tens of thousands pages over more than a decade.

What advice do you have for a first time FOIA filer? What do you wish the filers you worked with did differently?

Give it a try, be patient, expect to be stonewalled, but it is a good civics lesson in how to be jerked around by false promises. We think it would be wise to work with an experienced FOIA org to learn the ropes, pick up some skills, perhaps set up a business. Dream of being given a quiet grant or contract by the spies to keep the racket running.

Then when that blows up in your face, turn to honest leaking by highly imaginative methods.

MuckRock: Do you think the media spends enough time filing its own requests and sifting through documents?

No, way too lazy, and much more enjoyable to have quiet lunches with sources, work the crowds at Aspen and Davos and Bohemian Grove, swap names of informants and leakers, consult mutual PR agents and lawyers, laugh at the gullible consumers, blurb each others books, massage ex-spies as if not still on duty. And set up leak sites.

How do you handle analysis, whether in terms of what to present, what to emphasize, and what to make of what you get back?

We aim to avoid anal ysis, editorializing, and such. What we publish does that implicitly. We like to publish feedback, in particular disagreement. Praise is addictive so we hope to escape its narcosis.

Any advice for others trying to learn how to better read government materials?

Be highly skeptical of any government material. If it is classified don’t believe any of it. If it is redacted, even a single letter, trash it. Redactions are poison. Those who redact should be tarred and feathered.

Where did you learn about the FOIA process?

First by its voluminous feel-good advertising. Then by direct experience of its feel-very-bad failure.

Any tips or tricks you keep in mind as filers hunt for interesting documents?

Plan a campaign to first request what will very likely be granted in full. Then gradually ratchet up, up to what will not likely to be admitted exists. Work all the territory in between. Don’t do it full-time, in fact, no more than an hour per year. Far better results can be obtained from the local library.

You may know we call Cryptome a free library, not a leak site.

We conclude that confidence games of FOIA, leaks and secrets need to be replaced by sensible, unfettered, unbartered, un-dramatic public access to information generated ostensibly on its behalf and certainly fully paid for by taxpayers. Currently this information is hoarded, marked-up in value, over-priced, and worst, stolen from the public.

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