Why Does the USA Depend on Russian Rockets to Get Us Into Space?

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

That was an April 29 tweet from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is head of Russia’s space program and who is also individually targeted by U.S. sanctions imposed due to the Ukraine unpleasantness.

He sounds irked. Possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Rogozin to be irked. Possibly Rogozin is irked that he’s individually targeted by U.S. sanctions because the U.S. didn’t have the guts to target individuals of real importance at the Kremlin, and Rogozin’s feelings are hurt.

Here is an April 3 tweet from Rogozin about Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. satellites: “A Russian broom for an American witch.”

We’re Glinda, the Good Witch of the Free World. And we’re embarrassed about needing Russian flying monkeys to get us into space.

It didn’t have to be this way. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, puts U.S. satellites into orbit aboard all-American Delta IV rockets. ULA presented a paper to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics detailing how quickly the Delta IV-Heavy could be “human-rated” (Washington politician-speak for “safer than sending Christa McAuliffe up in the Space Shuttle Challenger”). ULA said 4 1/2 years. The paper was published in 2009.

International diplomacy is a big bordello. “I won’t sell it!” “I won’t buy it!” Is this any way to run a whorehouse?

But leadership of the U.S. space program has been lacking. Don’t blame NASA. Every NASA official I’ve talked to, including its present chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., and the head of NASA under George W. Bush, Dr. Michael Griffin, is eager to put the astro back in astronaut.

However, President Bush said we were going to Mars, and we went to Iraq instead. And U.S. lack of space capabilities took President Obama by surprise, like everything else has—opposition to Obamacare, Tea Party, NSA snooping, IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits, Crimea, VA screw-ups, ISIS fanatics pushing toward Baghdad.

And we’re a democracy. So we the people share blame for Russia finally winning the space race. (Tortoise disqualified for technical reasons, first place awarded to Sputnik hare.)

Just at a moment when we’re all making telephone calls to remote places, getting weather forecasts for July 4 weekend, looking at Google Earth to see if our neighbor’s new addition violates zoning ordinances, watching DirecTV, listening to SiriusXM radio, and unable to find our way home from our local bar without GPS, we’ve lost interest in space.

That we’re unable, for the time being, get to space personally is one thing. The more important thing is our ability to get stuff into space—stuff that keeps the CIA informed, connects and positions our defense forces, and helps us get home from the bar. Much of our ability is dependent on two rocket engines, the RD-180 and the NK-33/AJ26. These are made in Russia.

On April 11, the Space Foundation issued a “Fact Sheet: Russian Rocket Engines Used by the United States.” The Space Foundation is a non-profit international organization that has, for more than 30 years, been the foremost “advocate for all sectors of space.” Its mission is “to advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable, and propel humanity.” Its Fact Sheet, released nearly a month after The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey reported on U.S. satellites using Russian rocket engines, is just the facts.

(I’m a member of SF’s board. Because, I guess, every institution needs a class clown—in which capacity I got to talk to Charles Bolden and Michael Griffin. But I do not speak here, in any way, officially or unofficially, for the Space Foundation. I don’t speak for anyone, not even, sometimes, as my wife and children have pointed out, for myself.)

The factual situation is that ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket (more than three dozen launches vs. Delta IV-Heavy’s seven) was built around the RD-180 engine. Atlas V missions include, per the SF Fact Sheet, “military communications, intelligence collection, missile warning, planetary exploration…earth science payloads, a few commercial satellites, and possible human spaceflights in the future.”

The NK-33 engine, designated AJ26 after modification by America’s Aerojet Rocketdyne company, is key to the design of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket. Fact Sheet: “The primary mission of the Antares…[is] to service the International Space Station. Orbital is pursuing future commercial satellite launches and possible military satellite launches using Antares.”

A month after the Space Foundation published the Fact Sheet, the ever-twittering Dmitry Rogozin tweeted: “Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Rogozin also announced that Russia will call it quits with the International Space Station in 2020. That is four years before the U.S. plans to leave.

The ISS, launched in 1998, is the most expensive thing ever built—$150 billion and counting. The U.S. has provided more than $100 billion of that. There’s no astronomic reason the ISS can’t stay in use for another 10 to 14 years or longer. But it needs to be “reboosted” from time to time to lift it back into proper low earth orbit. Otherwise the ISS becomes a 357-foot million-pound surprise for earthlings. (Don’t worry too much. While the meteor that injured 1,000 people in Chelyabinsk last year was only 55 feet wide, it was 20 times as heavy.) Currently only Russian rocket engines, fitted with the Russian ISS docking system, can reboost the Space Station.

To these Russian nose-thumbings, one finger salutes, and social media bullyings, we do have alternatives.

The Delta IV can carry a larger payload into low earth orbit than the Atlas V, 60,779 lbs. vs. 41,478 lbs. But a Delta launch is much more expensive.

Plus, the Delta IV is—strange thing to say about an enormous rocket—very fast and noisy. According to Aviation Week, “There is some concern that the acoustic environment and acceleration profiles in the Delta IV nosecone could be too violent [for some Air Force and Navy satellite payloads].” Getting payloads “dual manifested” so that they can fly on either the Atlas or the Delta “requires detailed engineering work,” says AV, meaning “is slow as hell.”

Also Made in the U.S.A. is Orbital Science Corporation’s air-launched Pegasus. But it can carry a payload of only 977 lbs. The company’s Minotaur V can carry 1,390 lbs. but has flown just once. And its Taurus XL, now designated Minotaur-C, has been trouble-plagued, with three of nine launches ending in failure and the loss of $700 million worth of items supposed to go into orbit.

The SpaceX Falcon 9v1.1, all privately funded, all domestically sourced, can carry 28,990 lbs. It’s made three cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. But the Falcon is not yet Air Force certified for military and intelligence payloads. SpaceX is suing the Air Force over the slowness of this certification, although going to the U.S. court system is not a famous way of speeding things up.

U.S. Air Force four-star Gen. William Shelton, commandeer of Air Force Space Command and a guy who knows about these matters, said during a keynote address at the Space Foundation’s May 2014 Space Symposium that he would prefer the U.S. to develop its own equivalent to the RD-180. But he noted that would cost more than $1 billion and take between five and eight years.

So we have alternatives, sort of like the veggie burger alternatives we have on the backyard grill.

We’re dependent on the RD-180, which has flown 50 times on U.S. missions with 100 percent success. And to a lesser extent, we’re dependent on the NK33/AJ26 engine, which we’ve used six times with 100 percent success.

Plus, of course, there are U.S. political as well as U.S. technological headaches. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee and now going to the full Senate, contains an amendment from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) forbidding purchase of Russian RD-180 engines for national security missions after fiscal year 2017. The amendment is expected to survive the House-Senate conference and be in the bill signed by the president.

As Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com put it, “While one part of official Washington worries that Russia will follow through on a recent threat to prohibit use of RD-180 engines for U.S. national security space launches, another part is working to ensure exactly that outcome.”

International diplomacy is a big bordello. “I won’t sell it!” “I won’t buy it!” Is this any way to run a whorehouse?

What’s interesting is how we got into the red light district with Russia. It was the result of a chain of good decisions—wise, prudent, long-sighted, or, at the least, expedient choices.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, President George H.W. Bush was anxious that the USSR rocket expertise, especially the nuke-tipped ICBM kind, didn’t get sold to the highest bidder—China, Iran, North Korea, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry. President Bush and, after him, President Clinton urged U.S. aerospace executives to look for Russian rocket business partnerships that made sense.

They did make sense. The Russians had developed a very powerful, very reliable, and relatively simple liquid oxygen/kerosene engine. The U.S. had stopped most research and development on this kind of engine after the Saturn V moon rocket was retired.

The RD-171, which would become the RD-180, was a more advanced liquid fuel rocket engine than anything we had.

That was a surprise. I talked to several U.S. aerospace engineers who were involved with Russia from the beginning. “There were cats all over the factory,” said one. “I asked, ‘What’s with the cats?’ The Russians said, ‘The mice.’ I asked, ‘What’s with the mice?’ ‘They gnaw the wiring harnesses.’”

This engineer told me about the Soyuz booster engines, similar in design to the RD-180, and how, when it was time for the four boosters to be attached to the rocket, an old man would arrive carrying his own toolbox. He was the original expert on booster attachment. He was retired, but came in, unpaid, to make sure the boosters were attached right.

“The Soviet-era factories look like hell,” said another engineer. The Russian attitude is, ‘Why wash factory walls? They just get dirty again.’ But you go look at their machine tools and everything’s pristine.”

Part of the reason for the RD-180’s superiority is Russian skill with titanium. They have a lot of titanium in Russia. They’re adept at making titanium alloys. A third engineer I talked to called the alloys “unobtainium.”

We had trouble reverse engineering the alloys. “The Russians are amazing metallurgists,” said the third engineer. “But it’s an artisanal process. The Russians themselves may not know how it works.”

“Extraordinary what you can do when OSHA’s not around,” said yet another American engineer.

In 1995 Lockheed Martin conducted an open competition for the next generation Atlas rocket’s first stage engine. The RD-180 won on both performance and cost.

The idea was that the RD-180 would be co-produced, built in Russia for commercial satellite launches and built in America for U.S. government launches.

Lockheed Martin and ULA spent more than $120 million on the American part of the RD-180 co-production program. But budget constrictions trumped expansion of the U.S. industrial base. Russian-built RD-180s cost only about $10 million apiece.

With all due respect, the American aerospace industry can’t build a rider mower for $10 million. (Though it would mow your lawn at International Space Station orbital speed—17,000 mph.) Every RD-180 engine has been imported from Russia.

Given All of the Above, the Conclusion Is That We Should Go Ahead and Keep Using the Damned Russian Rocket Engines. Screw Russia.

We have a stockpile of RD-180s and AJ26s that will last two years. If the Russians don’t want their engines “used in the interests of the Pentagon,” we should employ the time-honored technique of international diplomacy and lie about it.

Will the Russians let the ISS fall out of the sky? That would move them from being the fourth least popular nation on earth—behind North Korea, Iran, and Syria—right to the top of the list.

Do we really need $1 billion and five to eight years, as Gen. Shelton says, to replace the RD-180? I asked a senior executive in a private sector space company. He said, “Only if you insist on doing the Air Force way.”

We possess all the RD-180 blueprints and specifications. We have, I’ve been told by a metallurgist, figured out the metallurgy. What’s Russia going to do? Haul us into International Patent Court in The Hague?

No nation was ever destroyed by embarrassment. And the RD-180 can assist the U.S. military in destroying all sorts of things, including Russians if necessary.

The McCain amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act contains exceptions for crisis situations—holes you could fly a Delta IV through.

And Russia, with its economy in recession and energy prices falling, needs the money and the continued production to keep its own space program going.

I’ve been told on deep background by a highly placed source (I’ve been waiting all my journalistic life to use the phrase “told on deep background by a highly placed source”) that Putin said Rogozin should put a sock in it.

And on-the-record in the foreground there is Gen. Shelton, quoted in the May 21 issue of SpaceNews, “Speaking to reporters here at the 30th Space Symposium, Shelton said that there are ‘indications’ that the [RD-180] will remain available on a ‘business as usual’ basis, though he declined to be specific.”

Russia can claim it’s taking its ball home, but Russia can’t quit playing.


“All-natural” labels on food are meaningless. Let’s get rid of them.

Walk down the aisle of a grocery store and you’re bound to see all sorts of bizarre foods labeled as “natural” or “all-natural.” There are “natural” Cheetos and “natural” cookies. There are “all-natural” fruit drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup.


The “natural” label is basically meaningless — there are very few rules for how it’s used and companies will slap it on all sorts of things.

And yet a lot of shoppers seem to take the label seriously, assuming it means the food is somehow better for you or healthier. Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson points to a new Consumer Reports survey finding that 59 percent of those polled check for a “natural” label when shopping for food. As he laments, “When will the vague ‘natural’ food label die?”

It’s worth expanding on Johnson’s point. There aren’t really any clear definitions for what counts as “natural” food, which is one reason why you see it pop up in so many odd places. But that’s partly because the word itself is inapt — very little about modern agriculture is “natural,” and it’s just not a good way of assessing the health or sustainability of our food system.

There’s no clear definition for “natural” food


But is it natural? BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration has no official definition of “natural food” — in part, they say, because a great many foods in the grocery store have usually been processed or altered in some way and so it’s difficult to draw a clear line.


Back in 1991, the FDA actually tried to come up with a more precise standard. But after two years of trying, the agency gave up. “It’s too complex,” one FDA official lamented in 2008.

(By the way, this is in contrast to the term “organic,” a term that is more precisely defined and regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.)

By and large, the FDA doesn’t regulate most uses of “natural” labels, though it will occasionally send warning letters — if, say, a product is labeled “all-natural” but contains citric acid or calcium chloride or potassium sorbate. (Though, as one investigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found, those warning letters often go ignored.)

Things are a little different with fresh meat, which is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. There, “natural” is defined as meaning the meat contains no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. But even here, some artificial additives are allowed (such as chicken flavored with a salt broth). And meat from animals raised on antibiotics or hormones can still be called “natural.”

Consumer groups have often complained that the lack of a clear definition means that lots of odd things get misleadingly labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural” even when they include chemical ingredients. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a long list of oddities over the years, including a Hunt’s “100% Natural” tomato sauce that contained citric acid or a Minute Maid “All-Natural” cranberry cocktail that contained high-fructose corn syrup.


That group called for stricter definitions and regulations on the practice, arguing that the label misleads consumers. But even that’s not as easy as it sounds. A more precise definition would still be fairly misleading — in part because the word “natural” isn’t a very helpful way to think about food.

Our food system isn’t “natural” to begin with


Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Underlying this broader issue is the widespread belief that “anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad,” as Cambridge geneticist Ottoline Leyser put it.


In a recent essay in PLOS Biology, Leyser argues that it’s time to kill this mistaken idea once and for all. Basically everything in modern agriculture is unnatural. “The cereal crops we eat bear little resemblance to their naturally selected ancestors, and the environments in which we grow them are equally highly manipulated and engineered by us,” she writes. “We have, over the last 10,000 years, bred out of our main food plants all kinds of survival strategies that natural selection put in. ”

There’s more along these lines. “Agriculture is the invention of humans,” she adds. “It is the deliberate manipulation of plants (and animals) and the environment in which they grow to provide food for us. The imperative is not that we should stop interfering with nature, but that we should interfere in the best way possible to provide a reliable, sustainable, equitable supply of nutritious food.”

In her essay, Leyser is making a specific point about genetically modified foods — she argues that the line between crops whose genes have been altered through conventional breeding and crops whose genes have been altered through more modern techniques isn’t as significant as many people make it out to be. Yes, there are all sorts of issues and debates around GM foods, but the fact that it’s somehow “unnatural” doesn’t tell us all that much.

That point could be applied more broadly. There are plenty of real issues and questions around food. Can we produce enough food to feed a growing population without ravaging our environment? Are we using too many antibiotics in our farms and accelerating the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Should we eat healthier? Is our food system safe?

But labeling foods “natural” or “unnatural” sheds basically no light on any of these questions. It’s a goofy marketing term that says nothing.

Further reading: 40 maps that explain food in America


How is GMO food different from regular food?

It might help to distinguish genetic engineering from traditional techniques for producing food.

Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for tens of thousands of years to get certain desired traits. Over time, for example, farmers (and scientists) have bred corn to become larger, to hold more kernels on an ear, and to flourish in different climates. That process has certainly altered corn’s genes. But it’s not usually considered “genetic engineering.”

Genetic engineering, by contrast, involves the direct manipulation of DNA, and only really became possible in the 1970s. It often takes two different forms: There’s “cisgenesis,” which involves directly swapping genes between two organisms that could otherwise breed — say, from wheat to wheat. Or there’s”transgenesis,” which involves taking well-characterized genes from a different species (say, bacteria) and transplanting them into a crop (say, corn) to produce certain desired traits.

Ultimately, genetic engineering tries to accomplish the same goals as traditional breeding — create plants and animals with desired characteristics. But genetic engineering allows even more fine-tuning. It can be faster than traditional breeding and it allows engineers to transfer specific genes from one species to another. In theory, that allows for a much greater array of traits.

Here’s a diagram from the Food and Drug Administration:



How amusement parks hijack your brain

THE ANTICIPATION KICKS in before you’ve even parked the car, just looking out the open window at the winding, towering roller coaster track. With the sun shining down from above, the scent of fried dough in the air, and a whole day ahead dedicated to nothing but pleasure, you’ve arrived at a place that is all but synonymous with summer in America.


An amusement park is like no other patch of land on earth. Full of bright colors, tantalizing games, infinite ice cream, and of course, amazing thrill rides that give you the power to speed or fly, they open every year to teeming crowds on a quest for fun. Lights flash everywhere; high-tech steel rides sit alongside old-fashioned diversions like face-painting stations and strength-testing machines; the laughter of children mingles with carnival music and happy screams of terror.

“You walk in and you sort of just go, ‘Whoa,’” said British historian Josephine Kane, the author of a 2013 book on early amusement park design called “The Architecture of Pleasure.” “There’s an immediate sense of sensory overload and chaos.”

But if the scene feels anarchic to you, there’s another way to think about the experience. The people who designed the rides, set up the games, and decided where to put the churro stands didn’t do it at random. The modern amusement park is, beneath the flash and the chaos, a carefully tuned psychological machine—a creation honed for more than a century to perfectly deliver a huge range of cognitive and physiological delights, pushing buttons you didn’t even know you had.


When the first amusement parks sprouted up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were often set up by people from the world of theater, with deep experience in the mystical arts of making people feel things. “There’s a very particular way that [parks] were designed,” said Kane, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Westminster, “[so that] you’d come off one ride and sort of float through the crowd, in a kind of swirling motion, and get sucked into another ride or another stall or booth.”

Today, as designs have evolved and improved—and modern psychology has unlocked more and more insights into what our bodies and brains crave—the amusement park has become almost a handbook to the ways the human brain can be switched on. It is “a whole system designed to manipulate you into experiencing different kinds of pleasure,” said David Linden, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of the book “The Compass of Pleasure,” about how the brain processes the things that make us feel good.

The tricks an amusement park plays on you don’t always happen the way you’d think. Games are designed to play on the appeal of almost, but not quite, winning; thrill rides like the Giant Drop tap into the strange mechanism in your brain that allows you to enjoy the rush of a simulated near-death experience. Even some aspects of the park that you’d never list as “fun” are gears in the machine: the maps that tell you where to go, the throngs around the food stands, the lines you have to endure to get to the more popular rides.

To understand the amusement park is to understand your own brain in ways you haven’t before—an almost unique window into the range of things that create that feeling we call “fun.” So step right up and enjoy the ride, as we take you inside the anatomy of a typical amusement park: a machine engineered for your conscious and subliminal delight, surprise, and excitement, right up until it’s time to head back to the real world.


Take the tour: 9 ways amusement parks hijack your brain



The Jumbo Jets Boeing and Airbus Turn Into Posh Private Planes

The $65 million Gulfstream G650 may be the pinnacle of the private jet market, but it just doesn’t do the job for billionaires who prefer to fly with more than a dozen or so passengers.

For that, the uber wealthy turn to Airbus and Boeing, who are more than happy to customize their jets — even the widebodies that can carry hundreds of people — for private use.

Commercial jet manufacturers have been replacing the rows of economy seats in their aircraft with sofas and entertainment centers since the late 1990s. A recent influx of billionaires from Russia, the Middle East, and China has led to a new focus on this part of the business. Since opening the private jet branch in 1997, Airbus has sold over 170 aircraft. Boeing got started in 1996, and has delivered on 195 of 217 total orders received.

The main reason to go with an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747 over a puny Gulfstream or Bombardier? According a “Billionaires Study” commissioned by Airbus, the wealthiest among us like to travel with family members and business associates. (This, apparently, is particularly true for Middle Eastern oil magnates.)

That’s not to say outfitting a jumbo jet for personal use is always a rational economic decision. For some, the bigger and more luxurious the plane, the better. That’s why Airbus and Boeing don’t just sell their planes, they offer a wide variety of customization options to give customers exactly what they want.

So how much does a personalized widebody plane cost? The manufacturers don’t exactly publish price lists, but we’ve seen figures between $80 million for a Boeing 737, $280 million for a Boeing 747-8, and up to $300 million for an A380.

Here’s a look at what’s available for billionaires ready to spend that big a pile of dough.

Rejected Licences Plates


In 2012 the website GovernmentAttic.org, citing open-records laws, requested that each U.S. state provide a list of the vanity license plates it has prohibited. Not all states were forthcoming. Wyoming sounded downright embarrassed. “I am not comfortable providing our list of prohibited personalized license plate combinations,” wrote a representative from the state’s department of transportation. “The list contains common 3 and 4 letter words or abbreviations that should not be spoken in mixed company.”

Utah, by contrast, complied with the request, sending along a list of nearly 1,000 plates that have been rejected over the years. Like many states, Utah reserves the right not to issue plates that its Division of Motor Vehicles deems inappropriate, either because the plate is obscene, offensive, or otherwise untoward.

Of course, obscenity is famously difficult to define, and some aspects of Utah’s personalized plate laws are easier to interpret than others. The state has issued a more-or-less blanket ban on the number 69, unless “used in a combination with the vehicle make, model, style.” This rule triggered the rejection of at least 39 license plate requests—including 69METS, a seemingly innocuous nod to the New York Mets’ first World Series championship in 1969. But most of the rules are a bit vaguer, leaving it to state officials to know an offensive plate when they see one. Often, the obscenity is plain as day, as in the cases of CARGASM, SKISLUT, and NAZI. Other applicants are cleverer, though not cleverer than the DMV’s watchdogs, who caught MLHICLB, FAHQUU and TIH2TA3 (read that last one backwards).

Most people whose risqué vanity plate applications are denied probably shrug and get on with their lives. But some drivers have fought back. In 2012 a citizen in North Dakota who had previously held the plate HONKY made an official appeal to the North Dakota Department of Transportation after being denied the plate when trying to reregister it. The appeal was successful on the grounds that it was in reference to honky-tonk music. A man in New Mexico argued, through his attorney, that his rejected plate IB6UB9 was not sexual innuendo but an inside joke, about gambling. “The phrase originated when Mr. Anaya was at a casino with an acquaintance playing roulette, and during the course of the roulette game the comment was made by Mr. Anaya to his acquaintance; ‘I be six, you be nine.’ ”

Like Utah, most states rely heavily on loose guidelines. Some, like Wisconsin, provide DMV employees a checklist of tricks to be on the lookout for (“1. Does the message contain FU?”; “7. Check for foreign words”). Michigan’s guidelines recommend that its guardians of public decency rely on a series of websites, includingUrbanDictionary.com, to help them find alternate, unsavory meanings. New Mexico even checks the binary translation of plates with several 0’s and 1’s.

The sample of 995 plates denied by Utah for nonadministrative reasons—that is, not because they were too long, or already taken—was released in 2012, and it has some unknown qualities to it. For instance, the document doesn’t specify how far back the list of banned plates goes. Citing a computer system upgrade since the list was generated, a representative from the state told me it was not possible to determine the dates the document covers.

Utah’s rejected plates are sorted into a handful of categories that are meant to convey why the plate was denied. But several of the categories would seem to overlap. The state does not specify the differences between the Vulgar, Profane, Obscene, and Sex Reference categories, for example, and plates seem to be sorted into them in arbitrary fashion: BEAVER was marked as a Sex Reference while BEAVERS was marked as Obscene; WOODY was labeled Obscene while WOODIE, WOODSY, WOODY56, and WOODY63 were all marked as Sex Reference.

Though not ideal for analysis, the categories do provide a general sense of the kinds of mischief Utah drivers have tried (and failed) to get into:

LicenseChartBlatt copy

Of course, these statistics only tell us how many plates of each type were actuallycaught; there is no way of knowing how many uncouth plates in each category weresubmitted. Only with complete license plate records (which are not public information) could we know how many plates with drug references slipped by the workers in the Utah state government. All we know for sure is that every standard Utah license plate bears the state’s unambiguous tourism slogan: “Life Elevated.”

The Secret to Getting Top-Secret Secrets

Jason Leopold tells me to pull up a chair in his home office. It’s a weekday morning in March, and he’s working out of his clean, quiet two-bedroom house in Beverly Hills. The office, next to the kitchen, feels like some kind of resonating chamber for his mania, a tiny room with a window that looks out onto a twisty canyon road. A poster of I.F. Stone, the independent journalist and muckraker, hangs on the wall, along with a small, framed piece of paper that Leopold recently found sitting on a table at the U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay. It’s one of his favorite document scores ever: a “Public Affairs Smart Card” created for the military’s PR folks, telling them to “Own the Interview” and “Stay in your Lane” and listing the many topics they’re not allowed to discuss, including “Investigations or their Results,” “Suicide,” “Construction,” “Presidential Remarks,” and “Attorney Allegations.” (To Leopold, this one scrap of paper made the whole trip worthwhile because it revealed how the government tries to control information. “I’m like, you idiots, why did you leave that lying around?”) And everywhere, stacked on bookshelves and on his desk, are piles of paper from every imaginable government agency, state and federal, topped by response letters: Dear Mr. Leopold… Dear Mr. Leopold…

I first learned about Leopold’s work from Twitter. His profile picture showed him standing in front of the entrance to Guantánamo wearing a T-shirt from the punk band Black Flag. He called himself a “FOIA terrorist”—FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. I started following him. The range of stuff that zips by on his feed is staggering and kind of thrilling: 140-character dispatches about guards and prisoners, spies and secrets, corporate intrigue, torture and war. Many of his tweets link to government documents he’s dug up. The documents regularly supply ammo to left and libertarian causes (curtailing NSA surveillance, closing Guantánamo), but Leopold doesn’t present as an activist. He comes off more like a stonecutter chipping away at the base of a mountain, sometimes getting pebbles, sometimes boulders.

A single day of FOIA mail for Jason Leopold; like acceptance letters from colleges, the bigger the envelope, the better the news. (Courtesy Jason Leopold)

Today there’s a small stack of recent FOIA responses next to his iMac. When I ask about them, Leopold starts flipping through the pile, page by page, with a mixture of irritation and amusement. He says he asked for all documents from the Department of Homeland Security about how it monitors the Tea Party movement. “This is really frankly fucking annoying as hell,” he says, looking at the letter from the government. The agency took a year to respond to his request, and now it has given him exactly three pages of documents, “redacted to the point where I don’t really know what it’s about,” he says. So he appealed the decision. (He appeals every response as a matter of principle: “I don’t care if they’re like, ‘Here’s a bunch of documents.’ Still appeal. There may be something left. Have them perform another search. Because they’re just terrible at it.”) He asked for all white papers, PowerPoints, and policy summaries on the use of drones in U.S. airspace and internationally for the purposes of engaging in lethal force against terrorist targets. He asked for “all draft talking points prepared by the NSA following the leaks of classified material about NSA surveillance programs”; he already got the final versions of the talking points, but he wants the drafts, too, for insight into the government’s thought process. “This is great,” he says, grinning at the NSA letter. “They identified 156 pages of draft talking points but they classified every single page as top secret.” Leopold shoots me a deadpan look: “The draft talking points.” He asked for all CIA files on the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. The agency sent him a “Glomar response,” a kind of evasive maneuver in which an agency neither confirms nor denies that the information exists, and says that if it does exist, it’s classified. “Everyone wants to get a Glomar every now and then,” Leopold tells me. “It’s just kind of like: You hit something. You achieved a Glomar: one point!” (Though his request was rejected by the CIA, Leopold obtained Seeger documents from the FBI that show one agent investigating a complaint from a government employee about his “feelings of revulsion” after listening to a “highly inflammatory” Seeger tape.)

Leopold picks up a piece of paper, squints, frowns. It’s a letter from the Postal Inspection Service. He asked them for… something. “To be honest with you, I don’t remember,” he says. “This was not even that long ago. Um.”

We’re not even through half the pile.

The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 to increase trust in government by encouraging transparency, has always been a pain in the ass. You write to an uncaring bureaucracy, you wait for months or years only to be denied or redacted into oblivion, and even if you do get lucky and extract some useful information, the world has already moved on to other topics. But for more and more people in the past few years, FOIA is becoming worth the trouble. There’s a whole segment of the tech community, for example, that wants to improve how cities and governments function by sharing data openly, and sometimes FOIA is the only way to get the right data. Activists are using it to investigate the views and ties of university professors. And journalists are turning to FOIA as the profession changes in ways that make the law more necessary.

For one thing, it’s getting harder for national security reporters to obtain government secrets the old-fashioned way, by coaxing them from sources. Even before Edward Snowden, the Obama administration was pursuing leakers of classified information with unprecedented aggression, going so far as to seize journalists’ phone records. Now, fearing another Snowden, the government has intensified its crackdown. “People are just not willing to give shit up,” Leopold says. “It’s like, ‘I’ll go to jail.’” With FOIA, though, you don’t have to imperil a source: Instead of asking a vulnerable human to spill government secrets, you ask the government for those secrets directly.

There’s also simple opportunism behind the FOIA boomlet in journalism: Primary source documents play well on the Web. They add heft to posts, building trust in young sites. The data work of Nate Silver, the Snowden-sped muckraking of Glenn Greenwald and colleagues, the exposés of Gawker and even TMZ—all of this ravenous digital journalism is trying to trap some external source of truth, to develop some pipeline of facts that can better withstand reader skepticism, and FOIA happens to be a set of pipes that’s already there.

Leopold has shown that it’s possible to build an entire working method around FOIA. Over and over, by demanding information more creatively and more persistently than anyone else, he gets documents no one else gets, like the military’s horrifyingly clinical description of how guards at Guantánamo are force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes, and manuals describing how the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Twitter for terrorist threats, and FBI records about the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings. (Leopold got the Hastings records by suing the bureau along withRyan Shapiro, a friend and fellow FOIA obsessive; the documents showed that the bureau opened a file on Hastings to “memorialize controversial reporting” by him, including a story in Rolling Stone about the American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, captured in 2009 by the Taliban and released in May.)

Leopold’s FOIA requests also play a role in larger battles for some of the most highly contested documents in the land. In late May, the government decided to release a legal memo about the 2011 “targeted killing” of the U.S. citizen and jihadist cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone in Yemen. A lot of people have demanded to see this memo; the ACLU and The New York Times sued to force its release. The government argued that releasing it would harm national security. But a panel of appeals-court judge ruled that this argument didn’t make sense. Why? One big reason: Leopoldalready had the memo, in essence. He’d put in a FOIA request for a sixteen-page white paper that contained a lot of the same legal reasoning. It argued that the U.S. could kill a “senior operational leader” or “an associated force” of Al Qaeda without the need for “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

Leopold’s FOIA successes have allowed him to make a living as a freelancer, writing news stories for Al-Jazeera America, Vice News, and other publications. He also publishes stories at Beacon Reader, a crowdfunding website that lets freelancers sell subscriptions to their work; there he offers “Lessons in FOIA Terrorism,” plus a “FOIA Terrorist” T-shirt, for ninety dollars a year. One reason Leopold has been able to build a following is that he’s a master of the law at a time when a lot of people want to learn it. Unlike many of his disciples, though, he has embraced FOIA for deeply idiosyncratic reasons. He isn’t just using it to dig up documents. He’s using it, in part, to atone for past sins. He’s using it to transform himself.

He’s pretty open about what happened. Writing about Leopold means reckoning with a uniquely full-disclosure human. Early in our conversations, I asked him what a national security reporter was doing in Beverly Hills. Most of those writers live on the East Coast, to be close to government sources. He said he used to live in New York, but he had to get out. Then he told me the story in what seemed like one unbroken breath.

It started with cocaine, which he discovered as a twenty-year-old, working in the music business. As he fell into addiction, a number of bad things happened in quick succession. He failed out of New York University. He tried to kill himself. He spent a month in a mental hospital. He started stealing promotional CDs at the music label he worked for and sold them at record stores to buy coke. He got caught and arrested, and eventually had to plead guilty to a felony theft charge to avoid jail time.

Leopold, at left, and friends gather around the axeman for the metal band Overkill at the old Ritz in New York City. (Courtesy Jason Leopold)

He thought maybe he could get off drugs by moving to a new city, so he left New York for Los Angeles, where he’d met someone on a previous trip—Lisa Brown, a calm, steady woman who worked as a music executive at a children’s TV network. He wanted to marry her. But he didn’t know how he’d make a living. He took stock of his skills. In New York, for a brief time, he’d written obituaries for a small newspaper. “The only thing I knew how to do was write,” he says. So in L.A., he joined the Whittier Daily News as a cops and courts reporter.

His plan to get sober in L.A. didn’t work. Within six months, he was using again. He moved from the paper to a small wire service, which fired him after an attorney threatened to sue for libel over a quote in one of his stories. The quote was legitimate, but the wire service couldn’t afford a lawsuit, and Leopold’s editor didn’t back him.

Not long afterward, in 1997, Lisa, now his wife, confronted Leopold about his drug use. He spent a month in rehab and began to attend 12-step meetings. But he wasn’t in therapy, wasn’t at peace. He spent the next several years chasing stories, winning scoops, and trailing debris through various California newsrooms, never telling anyone about his criminal past. Editors always loved Leopold at the start. He had real talent, an instinct for novelty coupled to an electric aggression, and his stories won lots of internal praise and even some awards. But he tended to bungle quotes and make spelling mistakes, and he was willing to bend or break ethical norms to get stories, sometimes lying to sources to get interviews and breaking agreements he made about what information should be on and off the record. “My whole thing was, I wanted to get at the truth by any means necessary,” he says.

He got fired from the Los Angeles Times after another reporter complained that he was playing music too loud and Leopold threatened to “rip your fucking head off your shoulders, you little prick.” Instead of stepping back, he pushed harder. In 2002, after reporting for a time at Dow Jones Newswires and covering the Enron beat, Leopold published a long investigative piece inSalon about the role of a key Enron figure named Thomas White. Leopold botched it. For one thing, he relied on a particularly damning email from White that he couldn’t prove was authentic. (He says he shared the email with his Salon editors, and they agreed he should use it.) Worse, he plagiarized seven paragraphs of the piece from an earlier Enron story in theFinancial Times. Leopold says the plagiarism was a mistake made in haste; he credited the FT in the story, though no amount of credit could have justified that much lifted material. “There’s nothing I can say that will explain it,” he says. “It was completely fucked up.” Salon apologized to its readers, and the media reporter David Carr pointed out Leopold’s mistakes in The New York Times: “Web Article Is Removed; Flaws Cited.”

Leopold revealed all of this in News Junkie, a memoir he published in 2006, with a cover featuring a keyboard, a coffee ring, and a line of coke. News Junkie is a dark book that rides on long passages of dialogue (Leopold says he kept journals) and potboiled prose. Typical sentence: “Hellbent on living the life of a rock star, I drank a half bottle of straight whiskey and snorted eightballs of cocaine nearly every day.” It feels like the outpouring of a guy who realizes he’s been destroyed by the secrets he’s kept and vows to never keep one again. Leopold failed to disclose, so here’s an orgy of disclosure to compensate. He writes that his father, a blue-collar New Yorker with a panther tattoo on his arm, used to beat him. He writes about wanting to smash a particular lawyer’s head with a baseball bat, and deciding to send David Carr a gift-wrapped box of elephant shit, “two big logs,” before losing his nerve. After Carr’s article, Leopold panicked that he would never be able to work in journalism again: “It felt like my arms had been amputated.”

Still, his wife stuck with him. “The thing that I was really drawn to was his honesty,” Lisa says, “which seems so ironic, but he was so real, and honest. He’s very honest with his emotions…. Through the drug-use phase, I still ultimately felt he was honest about how he felt about me. Like, that has never—I have never doubted that.” But if anyone else was going to see what Lisa saw in him, he needed to start over.

One afternoon in L.A., Leopold lets me tag along to a meeting with a source so I can see how he operates now. Leopold’s been talking to the guy for a year, but has never met him in person. The guy says he has some information about misconduct and incompetence in the part of the government that performs background checks on potential employees—the same part that failed to flag Edward Snowden as a security risk. Leopold says he’s asked the source if I can observe their meeting, and the source has agreed.

We walk out Leopold’s front door and hop into his black Mercedes C250. There’s a child seat in the back, and on top of the seat, a stack of rock and punk CDs. (Leopold owns a massive collection of rock-concert T-shirts that takes up almost three full closets in his bedroom and spills into the room proper. “I gave it all up—the drugs, the alcohol,” he says. “I gotta havesomething.”) I ask how he can afford a Benz. “It’s actually not that expensive,” he says. “Same price as a Prius. My wife drives a Prius.” He pauses. “I’m still fakin’ it, I guess.”

We drive toward Redondo Beach, listening to The Fall and talking about his fascination with Guantánamo Bay. It’s such a strange, dark world, he says, and there aren’t a lot of people reporting on it.

Maybe the biggest story of Leopold’s career came from Guantánamo. Last year, he received an encrypted email from a source. It contained the government’s translation of six handwritten notebooks belonging to a Saudi prisoner named Abu Zubaydah. George W. Bush called Zubaydah “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States,” and the CIA used him as a guinea pig for its torture program, flying him overseas and waterboarding him repeatedly. But in a four-part series for Al-Jazeera America, Leopold pointed out that while Zubaydah was clearly a man of “hard-core anti-Western sentiments and a willingness to embrace violence and death for the cause,” he wasn’t the high-level leader the U.S. government had said he was. A functionary, not a mastermind. Leopold used the diaries to humanize Zubaydah. He quoted the jihadist on his fondness for elements of Western culture: “The Lady in Red” songwriter Chris de Burgh;Rambo III (“I watched this movie and I laughed loudly… My eyes became teary because of the deep laugh”); Pepsi (“Five chilled bottles of Pepsi Cola… is a very amazing thing—especially when you drink the bottle as one shot”). “It almost makes me think about myself,” Leopold says. “What made me make the choices that I made in my own life? And is there such a thing as redemption?…. What does it mean, what does it look like?”

Leopold is a jittery driver, checking his phone at every light. He’s afraid he’ll miss something: an email from his lawyer about documents on the way, a note from an editor or a source, a tweet on a breaking story. We eventually come to a coffee shop in a strip mall and get a table outside. A few minutes later, the source shows up and shakes Leopold’s hand. He sees my tape recorder and asks if it’s on; I tell him no. On the other side of the coffee shop’s window, a guy in a Jimi Hendrix shirt is typing on a laptop. “Is he with you?” the source says.

He starts talking at high speed about the nuances of government procedures, jabbing his finger at Leopold’s reporter’s notebook, giving him names and dates but no quotes for the record. Leopold asks a series of simple, basic questions, trying to get the guy to slow down and walk him through the material; the guy asks in a worried tone if Leopold got the documents he sent, irritated that Leopold doesn’t seem to recall every detail. There’s a lot at stake here: If either guy misjudges the other, they could both end up screwed.

Leopold keeps telling the source that he’s okay, that no one is listening to their conversation, but when a random dude in an NPR T-shirt begins to loiter outside the coffee shop behind him, the source clams up until the dude walks away: “He’s wearing an NPR T-shirt.” Leopold is confused by this statement.

After an hour of tense back-and-forth, Leopold shakes the source’s hand and says goodbye, and we climb back into the Benz. Whistleblowers are “a very very unique breed,” he says. He understands and shares their passion for exposing injustice, but at the same time, you “have to really vet them.” The meeting has left Leopold a bit wary. The source’s paranoia, he says, may be a notch against his credibility. It’s hard to know what might be real and what might be generated by the guy’s own fear.

Leopold got burned by a source once. It happened in May 2006, just as News Junkie was rolling off the presses.

Here’s how he tells the story. His phone rang on a Saturday afternoon when he was in the car with Lisa. The call was from an FBI source he trusted implicitly, a guy who had come through for him on multiple stories. Now the source gave Leopold huge news: Karl Rove, the conservative political strategist and deputy White House chief of staff, had been indicted in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

Plame, an undercover CIA agent, was married to a high-profile former ambassador who had written a New York Times op-ed that angered the Bush administration. Someone with knowledge of her secret identity had leaked it to journalists, apparently as retribution. Leopold felt like this was “the most unbelievable injustice,” and he had been pursuing the story for the liberal news site Truthout. If Rove had truly been indicted, it could reroute American politics. “I was like, ‘Holy fucking shit!’” Leopold recalls. “I pulled over. I was like, ‘Lisa, I gotta go, here, bye.’” Leopold called another source that he and the FBI guy both knew, and the second source confirmed that Rove had been indicted. Next, Leopold called the spokesman for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and left a message. He didn’t immediately hear back. Then he called his editor, Marc Ash, who interviewed one of Leopold’s sources on the phone “at significant length,” Ash recalls. “I walked away with the impression that I was talking to someone who was in fact qualified, and was providing solid information.”

Leopold and Ash decided to publish the story without any caveats, without saying it was a rumor. Leopold wrote in Truthout that “Rove’s indictment was imminent.” He was trying to beat the Times and the Washington Post. He did beat them—with a false story. Rove hadn’t been indicted and never would be. In his 2010 memoir, Rove called Leopold “a nut with Internet access.”

The timing, for Leopold, couldn’t have been worse: He had just published a memoir portraying himself as addict, liar, and thief, and now he had blown one of the biggest stories in the country. Other journalists chewed over Leopold’s mistake on blogs, in newspaper columns, and on radio. TheColumbia Journalism Review, in an article that still comes up on the first page of Google results for “Jason Leopold,” called Leopold a “serial fabulist” and compared him to Stephen Glass, one of the most prolific liars in modern journalism history. Leopold’s attorney sent CJR a letter saying the statements were false and defamatory: There was a difference between getting a story wrong and making a story up. “I mean, I was a crazy guy,” he says, “but I’m not that crazy.”

Leopold is apologetic and horrified when he talks about the Rove story. “It’s like, what the fuck was I thinking?” he says. Were his sources lying to him? “I really just don’t know.” (Scooter Libby, a close advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, had discussed Plame with reporters, and was later convicted of four felony counts for lying about it. Rove’s attorney later admitted that Rove had disclosed Plame’s covert identity to a Time reporter but didn’t identify her by name.) The investigative reporter and blogger Marcy Wheeler, who covered the Plame leak and is now known for her work on civil liberties and national security, offers a plausible explanation: “I basically think Leopold got used by FBI sources. He published that Rove was being indicted as a means to pressure Fitzgerald into indicting him, and it didn’t happen, and he didn’t burn his sources, and as a result, he took egg in the face.” Leopold is still trying to figure out what went wrong; earlier this year, he filed FOIAs with the George W. Bush Presidential Library for records on Rove and Plame to see if he could find any clues.

What do you do as a journalist when you run short? The next couple of years were hard for Leopold, and they would have been harder if not for the birth of his son, Hill, in 2008. “I just didn’t care about anything else,” he says.

Despite the perception in some parts of the profession that he was done for, Leopold continued to report. He wanted to make up for the Rove story, and he couldn’t do that without producing new work. He remained on staff at Truthout. He interviewed Valerie Plame on video. (Plame has long supported Leopold; she recently messaged him and one of his Al-Jazeera Americacolleagues on Twitter and said she was “proud to know you both & call you friends.”) He wrote about veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder for an obscure site. He started his own site and posted the odd document there.

Eventually he caught a break. In 2010, a military source gave him a set of documents he’d obtained through FOIA showing how the Air Force trained young officers in the ethics of launching nuclear weapons. The jewel in the pile was a forty-three-slide PowerPoint presentation in which the Air Force quoted from the Bible (“Jesus Christ is the mighty warrior”), St. Augustine, and Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi who helped America launch its space program. (“We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through,” the von Braun quote read, “and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”) Leopold wrote a story for Truthout—“Jesus Loves Nukes,” the headline began—and linked to the raw documents in the text. The story spread quickly, shared by readers and by other reporters, maybe because no one sharing it had to worry about whether they could trust the person who had unearthed the documents; they only had to trust the documents themselves.

For Leopold, it was a lightbulb moment; he wanted to do more work with that kind of impact and reach. He asked the military source to help him better understand FOIA, and the source obliged. He explained how to write an effective request. You had to send the request to exactly the right place, and you had to tell the FOIA analyst on the other end which keywords to use and even which databases to search. The trick was to let them know you knew as much about FOIA as they did, if not more.

The great thing about FOIA, for Leopold, was that it didn’t care about his past. It was just a law, an impersonal series of rules and procedures, inputs and outputs. Anyone could make a request: a good person, a bad person, a person who had done something bad and was trying to be good. There was hope in that.

Slowly, letter by letter, Leopold discovered the power of FOIA. The main thing was a simple mental shift, an epiphany that filled him with a glee that never really went away.

According to the law, Leopold could ask the U.S. government for anything, as long as it was an agency record. They didn’t have to give it to him, but he could ask: for emails and schedules and meeting minutes, for reports and standard operating procedures, for PowerPoints and white papers, even for lists of other people’s FOIAs—and not just for these things but also for the things that the government was saying to itself as it decided whether to give him these things. He could ask for the “processing notes” of his own FOIAs. (In one set of processing notes from the Department of Justice, an agency employee jokes that Leopold is part of a “FOIA posse”; a DOJ colleague shoots back that he should start a band.) He could ask for stuff so outlandishly secret and high-level that even he had a hard time believing the government would cough it up, stuff like the emails of Keith Alexander, former director of the NSA—but he got them. This dude who was reading all these other people’s emails? Leopold could get his emails. “Just give them to me! They’re government records, give them to me!” (Leopold recently published emails between Alexander and high-level executives at Google, and the NSA folks have told him that more emails from Alexander are on the way. “The intelligence folks are really nice,” Leopold says. “Even though they’re doing all these allegedly terrible things, they’re really nice.”)

As he investigated the machinery of FOIA, he found the hidden gears and tricks that made the machine work faster. Like expedited processing: If he could demonstrate a “compelling need” for information that must be released urgently, it could move his request to the top of the pile. And at every step, Leopold learned, if the answer was no, he could appeal. Appeal the denial of expedited processing. Appeal the integrity of the search. Appeal the redactions. Sue. Yes, he could sue the government to get the documents he wanted. “Going to court completely changes the process,” Leopold says. “It forces them into action.” With an activist attorney in D.C. named Jeffrey Light, who works pro bono, Leopold has sued the government eleven times in the past two years. For perspective, his ten open FOIA lawsuits is nine more than the entire staff of The Wall Street Journal has right now, and it’s more than The New York Times has opened or concluded in the past year.

“It becomes almost like an addiction, you know?” Leopold says. “It’s not a secret. I have a totally addictive personality. And I think it’s healthy, because I’m taking advantage of the democratic process…. I’m doing everything by the book.” He makes the process transparent, too. He shares not just the documents but the journey toward them. When the government denies him, or heavily redacts, he publishes the government’s explanation, which is often revealing in itself. There’s almost no way for him to lose. Within the FOIA world, anyway. The journalism world is another story.

Leopold is not forgiven. He is followed, he is read, he is respected, and he even has his fans: According to former L.A. Timesreporter Terry McDermott, who has written two books about 9/11 and its aftermath, “If [Leopold] were working for the New York Times, every journalist in the country would know who he was.” But because of Leopold’s mistakes on the Rove story, and maybe also the Enron story, he’s still a little bit toxic. I had a hard time getting prominent national security reporters to weigh in on Leopold, even ones who had written about his recent work in a positive light. They’re “sort of caught,” says Allen McDuffee, who covers national security for Wired and used to work with Leopold at Truthout. “They definitely have to recognize the work that he’s done, but they don’t want to give him credit as a journalist for doing it.”

Stories that praise Leopold’s FOIA scoops often refer to him not as a journalist but as an “activist.” Last month, he got into a Twitter exchange with Spencer Ackerman, the national security editor for the Guardian US and a widely respected reporter. Ackerman tweeted, “There is video evidence of Guantánamo Bay force-feedings…. So today, I filed a FOIA for it. We’ll see what they do.” Leopold replied, “Beat u to it. I filed FOIA for it last July & it’s now part of my wide-ranging Gitmo FOIA lawsuit.” Leopold linked to a PDF of his legal complaint. Ackerman tweeted back, “uh, good for you?” Leopold’s whole approach was right there in microcosm, and his problem, too: his pride in being first, his eager self-promotion, his ache for validation from his peers, his peers’ uncertainty about who the fuck this guy is. (In an email to me, Ackerman writes that he and Leopold have “never met, never had any sort of relationship, and so I found it an odd & random thing to tweet at me.”)

(Courtesy Jason Leopold)

Leopold’s crimes against journalism were serious. But it’s hard to think of any journalist who has worked harder to show that he’s changed. Some miscreants don’t visibly change at all and are forgiven anyway. Leopold is different. He’s been sober 17 years, he says. He has made his work part of his rehabilitation; he has slowly rebuilt journalistic trust by circumventing the usual idea of it. “He’s always trying to prove that what people have been saying about him is wrong,” Lisa Leopold says. How many years of good work does he have to produce before he will be forgiven? He already has eight years. So is it ten years? Twenty? Last month, he conducted the first interview in seven years with James Mitchell, the Florida psychologist who helped the CIA design its torture regime, and published it in the Guardian, his first byline there. He followed it up on May 22 with his second Guardian piece, based on a classified Pentagon report he won through a FOIA lawsuit; the report described “staggering” and “grave” damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities as a result of the Snowden disclosures, but provided no details of specific damage. Does the fact that he’s writing for the Guardian mean he’s back in the club? No one will tell him; forgiveness doesn’t work like that. Which is why he fantasizes sometimes about The Document.

One day at lunch—a Greek place in Beverly Hills—he tells me he dreams of discovering the ultimate document, some kind of tape or report “where I look at it and it’s like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m waiting for for ten years.” Maybe it’s a videotape of terror suspects being waterboarded by the CIA—a squirreled-away copy of one of the tapes they famously destroyed. Maybe it’s something else. The Document. A record of such clear and deep injustice that it will upend trust in the powerful at the same time it restores trust in him. A thing he can show not just to the public but to the journalism community, to his peers, and say, “Okay, are we good now?”

It’s out there. He may have a filed a request for it a month ago, or a year. And when it suddenly appears, in his mailbox or in his Dropbox, he will know he has to move quickly, carefully but quickly, to push the news into the world before he gets scooped.

Poachers kill one of the world’s largest elephants in Kenya

One of Africa’s last ‘great tuskers’, elephants with ivory weighing over 100lbs, has been poisoned to death by poachers in Kenya after years of adapting his behaviour to hide himself from humans.

The bull, named Satao and likely born in the late 1960s, succumbed to wounds from poison darts in a remote corner of Tsavo National Park where he had migrated to find fresh water after recent storms.

His carcass yesterday lay with its face and great tusks hacked off, four legs splayed where he fell with his last breath, left only for the vultures and the scavengers.

Conservationists told how he moved from bush to bush always keeping his ivory hidden amongst the foliage.

“I’m convinced he did that to hide his tusks from humans, he had an awareness that they were a danger to him,” said Mark Deeble, a British documentary filmmaker who has spent long periods of time filming Satao.

The elephant’s killing is the latest in a massive surge of poaching of the mammals for their ivory across Africa.

Richard Moller, of The Tsavo Trust, who had been monitoring Satao for several months confirmed that the elephant found dead on May 30 was indeed Satao, whom he called “an icon”.

“There is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries,” Mr Moller said.

“A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.”

A soaring demand for ivory in a number of Asian nations has seen poaching reach levels that were last seen in the 1980s before the ivory trade was banned.

“The loss of such an iconic elephant is the most visible and heart-rending tip of this iceberg, this tragedy that is unfolding across the continent,” added Frank Pope of Save The Elephants in Nairobi.

The street value of elephant ivory is now greater than gold, running to tens of thousands of pounds per tusk. Organised criminals are increasingly running poaching gangs and networks, officials have said.

More than 20,000 African elephants were slaughtered in 2013, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has documented the killing of 97 elephants so far this year, but experts dispute the official figures.

Dr Paula Kahumbu, who leads the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, wrote that – based on the reports she has seen – “elephant poaching in Kenya is at least 10 times the official figures”.

In March this year, renowned conservationist Richard Leakey described poaching in Kenya as a “national disaster” and that poachers were operating with “outrageous impunity”.

“They could not operate with the impunity we are seeing if you did not have some form of protection from law enforcement agencies,” he said, likening the crisis to the mass poaching of the late 1980s.

Mr Leakey disputes official statistics that claim that the number of elephants that have been killed has declined. KWS recorded that 302 elephants were poached in 2013 down from 384 the previous year, of a total estimated population of 38,000 in Kenya.

Earlier this month, police seized more than 200 elephant tusks in a warehouse in the port city of Mombasa, weighing over 4,400lb.

Two men have been charged in connection with the haul.

Nelson Marwa, Mombasa county commissioner, said that the ivory find was linked to terrorism and drug barons in the city.

Mr Leakey cited the Indian Ocean port as a “staging post” for ivory smuggled from countries across the region.

Until recently, poachers in Kenya faced lenient sentences and few were successfully prosecuted.

A study by WildlifeDirect, a Nairobi-based charity that Dr Kahumbu heads, found that over the past five years just four per cent of those convicted of wildlife crimes in 18 of the country’s courts were sent to jail.

There is hope that tough new legislation passed earlier this year will lead to higher conviction rates and tougher sentences.

“Satao was probably one of half a dozen of Kenya’s great tuskers, possibly the largest,” said Mr Deeble, who flew over the elephant’s carcass on Friday.

“It’s a devastating situation. Kenya’s last great tuskers need presidential protection. If Satao’s death can galvanise the focus on what’s actually happening here in terms of poaching, then he won’t have died in vain.”