Despite backlash, Jason Leopold stands by his story

BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold. Photo by Laura Geiser. This article is the third in a series focusing on notable forensic journalists for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Jason Leopold has a long list of national security scoops to his name. He covered the brutal mistreatment of detainees at the Guantanamo military prison. He won a court victory securing the public release of emails on Hillary Clinton’s private server. With a team, he reported on Donald Trump’s attempt to build a tower in Moscow while campaigning for president. A series of stories on which he led reporting, about an apparent Russian targeted killing campaign, was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting.

Leopold, who is 49 and works for BuzzFeed, is either the patron saint of Freedom of Information Act journalism or an outright information terrorist, depending on whether you’re talking to workaday reporters or US intelligence services. (The latter designation enhances the of the former.) Recently he reported, along with Anthony Cormier, that President Trump had told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

The story prompted fury—not least because it was to date the only piece of journalism to elicit more than a “no comment” from Peter Carr, spokesperson for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, who said they had not seen documents that fit Leopold and Cormier’s description. The Washington Post reported that the Deputy Attorney General’s office called Mueller’s office to ask whether Mueller would respond to the story, a move that would seem to far exceed the Deputy Attorney General’s authority over the investigation.

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As the story ignited a poisonously partisan political debate, online commenters began digging into Leopold’s history. He freely admits that he has had some troubled moments in his career: he was accused of plagiarism by his editors at Salon, fired from the Los Angeles Times, and wrote a piece for Truthout about a coming indictment of Karl Rove that never came. After Carr issued his qualified denial, many high-profile outlets, including Fox News, the Washington Post’s op-ed section and CNN, took the opportunity to pounce on Leopold.

The other day, Leopold and Victoria Baranetsky, a Tow Center fellow, took the stage at Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall to discuss Baranetsky’s new report for the Tow Center, Data Journalism and the Law. After the event, Leopold sat down with CJR to talk about his work, his future, the nature of newsgathering, and whether he stands by his Cohen story. (He does.) This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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I’m going to get this out of the way: There’s a story on CJR’s website from 2006 that was one of our most-read pieces for a few days because various right-wingers were digging it up, tweeting it, and posting it to message boards in the wake of your and Anthony’s contested scoop on Michael Cohen. I’m sure you remember the story, about an anonymously sourced piece you’d written for Truthout saying that Karl Rove would be indicted, which he wasn’t. Tell me about the circumstances around that, if you can.

I have to think of how to say this. The only thing I can say about this is that it is what it is. It’s a story that was written about me in 2006, 13 years ago. I think it’s apparent to anyone who reads it that it was a hit piece, and that’s really all I can say about it. I would rather not re-litigate my past. I’ve been very open about mistakes that were made and my work speaks for itself.

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On Cohen, you don’t have to comment on the nature of the story, just tell me how it feels for you personally.

Well, let me first say that we stand behind our story, as we have, along with the sources who informed it. Personally, I don’t care about [the backlash]. We’re journalists. We have a thick skin. I have taken hits all the time. It’s not unique to me.

 

It does seem uniquely personal.

It’s somewhat personal here. I do understand it. I don’t want to come across as defensive, but the fact of the matter is that the work that I’ve done over the last 13 years, the records that I helped put out there, the stories that I helped publish, I believe far outweigh the real mistakes that were made, because that work is good. But I still own them. Right now, I talk about having a thick skin, yeah, but I’m a human being, and of course it hurts, you know? I’m getting death threats and I’m getting phone calls and it really feels like an organized campaign. I think it’s so interesting to watch people, how they respond to me and what they think I am. I’m the guy that got Hillary Clinton’s emails out. The people that hate me now loved me years ago. Anthony’s the same way—we’re not partisan in any way, shape or form. We really simply just believe in the truth and would do the exact same kind of work no matter who was in office.

But I think, particularly after being called the “enemy of the people,” it really is personal for a lot of them [conservatives], and I represent the media. The people I’ve worked with closely will attest to my integrity and credibility. I have been of service to many journalists. I’ve taken the time out to assist with FOIA appeals, I’ve really tried to pay it forward. So you kind of have to separate the fact that the online mobs are just online mobs, and what everyone else does I have no control over. The reality is that we spent, as was stated, many months on the story and we stand by it.

 

The work that I’ve done over the last 13 years, the records that I helped put out there, the stories that I helped publish, I believe far outweigh the real mistakes that were made, because that work is good.

 

You talk about the death threats and the harassment and abuse. The premise of a lot of that is this idea that reporters lead privileged lives and never have to work and don’t do anything important or useful. But most of the reporters I know don’t live like that at all.

I feel incredibly fortunate about the fact that I work for a news organization that, in terms of what I’ve been doing for the past two years, and what Anthony’s been doing, completely support us. That’s been incredible. It’s been different from what I’ve experienced previously. But there’s always that feeling of oh man, I’m exhausted. I realized after 2018 ended that I hadn’t taken a vacation. Or any time off.

And one thing that I’ll probably note is that my brother was murdered two and a half years ago. He—it was terrible. I was at Vice at the time, and I’ll tie it into a story: I was knee-deep in this HIllary Clinton email litigation, and it turned out it was my sister’s ex-boyfriend that murdered my brother. It was truly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

 

I can’t even imagine.

The only thing that I was able to do to deal with that kind of pain was to continue working, and really dive in, in a way that I hadn’t before. And that meant literally spending ten hours a day on a computer trying to find people, trying to track down sources. In a way, I was committed as a result of that. It was such a horrible moment because I would be, like, “I don’t know if I can wake up in the morning, because I can’t believe it.” I was in shock that my brother was murdered—my older brother—and I felt, like, “I need to do this work.”

 

So you continued in journalism. What made you decide to stick with national security?

I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the world of secrets, perhaps because I had been keeping my own secrets for a long time.

 

What were those?

Well, I’m a recovering addict. I’ve been clean and sober for 20 years now.

 

You made FOIA your focus. Going that route as a reporter can be exasperating, but when it works out it’s also pretty bulletproof—was that why you wanted to make such extensive use of it?

I read news reports like everyone else. I read about covert programs, whether it was the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs, or the black site prisons covered in the Washington Post—and they were describing activities that were either sponsored or supported by the US government. My immediate thought was, “How can I advance that?” I knew that there was paper and there were documents, because some of these stories described documents. And so I asked myself what it would be like to go after that.

 

How have you seen the FOIA landscape change over the 13 years?

It’s changed a lot. It used to be that the public would think it was only journalists who were filing the FOIAs—and that’s never been the case—but now citizen journalists, or just members of the public are really using this tool on their own to try and pry loose records. What I’ve seen is just an increase in the use of this tool, the Freedom of Information Act. And I do think that the successes that I’ve had and that some of my colleagues have had, and outfits like MuckRock, have made it easier for requesters and journalists to file requests and have helped spread the word about the Freedom of Information Act. And then of course there’s social media; if you get a document, you can spread it on Twitter and highlight your work as it’s happening.

 

Do you think it’s helped independent journalism?

If you talk about some of the non-profits like Reveal and ProPublica, yeah, I think it’s become a crucial component of the reporting process. There are certain independent journalists who are able to become successful at it, and it’s helped them land big stories.

 

It used to be that the public would think it was only journalists who were filing the FOIAs—and that’s never been the case—but now citizen journalists, or just members of the public are really using this tool on their own to try and pry loose records.

 

I once interviewed Felix Sater, who had worked as a fixer for Trump on a bunch of his real estate deals. I couldn’t confirm the really outlandish stuff he told me. And then you interviewed him, and you did. Anonymous sources told you Sater had worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, had helped coordinate a bombing campaign, and other details. You’d clearly built your source base.

Well, I was fascinated by Felix Sater, especially because, before Trump was even a candidate, [former Attorney General] Loretta Lynch was asked a question [in a public Senate hearing] about Felix Sater. Was it her confirmation hearing?

 

Yeah, Lynch’s confirmation hearing. I think it was Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley.

Grassley, yeah. He asked Lynch a question about Sater and she said she couldn’t talk about it, but said Sater had provided amazing help to the US government. And really the way she was describing it just made me go, “Whoa, this is fascinating.” What is that about?! What’s going on here? I want to find out more. And then he surfaced as someone connected to the Trump campaign. We’ve all read the same stories about him and about Trump. Without revealing sources, I will say that we were able secure his statement that he read, I believe, to the Senate [Intelligence Committee, in a closed session]. And the things that he said in there were just…my god, this is unbelievable! And that was its own roadmap for us. We dug deep into court documents. One document we found, I’m sort of paraphrasing here, said Felix Sater traveled to the Middle East after 9/11 at the behest of the FBI on a mission involving Al Qaeda. We quoted this in the story.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guy who was working for the Northern Alliance, was assassinated a day before 9/11 in Afghanistan, and Felix mentioned this guy in his statement. And right away when I saw that I said, “This guy—he’s not lying.”

 

You’ve been reporting on DC for going on 20 years.

Jesus. What is this, 2019?

 

Yes.

Probably more like–yeah, 18 years.

 

Does Donald Trump’s presidency alter how we cover national security?

Well, you had eight years of George W. Bush. And post-9/11, national security reporting became a very important beat. It didn’t really exist in that way prior to that point. It became a beat where people had these Central Intelligence Agency sources—and Department of Defense—where they were able to turn out these bigger stories about the torture program and spying programs. Then you had Obama with the drone program and other national security programs, and Guantanamo. And it became a really, really critical component of foreign reporting and understanding what the government does in our name. You move over to Trump, and we’re caught up in him as opposed to what’s going on outside of him. Right now in national security, you don’t see much of what’s happening.

 

Trump doesn’t even seem to read his intelligence briefings, he just live tweets Fox & Friends.

During the Obama years, I was very interested in the classified program where the US was arming Syrian rebels. I sent a Freedom of Information Act request, they sent me what’s known as a Glomar response, which meant they could neither confirm nor deny [the existence of records that would respond to the request], and that was that. Trump, I think it was last year, or maybe the year before, tweeted that he was ending this program. It was still happening, but he was ending it. And I thought, “This is great!” Because that, to me, constituted what’s known as an official disclosure and they can’t use Glomar any more. So I sued for it.

 

I try to go ear-to-the-ground on a lot of things that are taking place, because you have smaller agencies in the federal government that most people don’t even know exist that are suddenly alive and doing things that they’ve never done before. It’s very important to see what the ripple effect is. As somebody who loves national security and really continues to report heavily on it, I think it’s really an area where the public just doesn’t care. Their questions are “Will he be impeached?” “Will he be gone?” It’s really hard to find readers.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at Columbia Journalism Review.