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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.
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.
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.”)
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.
It was not shaping up to be a great day for the churchgoers of Bungay, England. The congregation of St Mary’s church had braved a horrible storm to attend service on August 14, 1577, when the elegant Anglican building was struck by lightning. And then the hellhound arrived.
Moments after the church was fried, a massive black dog burst through the doors, careening through the aisles. Two men knelt in prayer. The monster shot past them, and as he did he “wrung the necks of them bothe” and they fell over dead where they prayed. As quickly as he appeared, the dog vanished, leaving nothing but scorch marks on the floor and two corpses in his wake.
So recorded Reverend Abraham Fleming in “A Straunge and Terrible Wunder,” an account of the bizarre happenings in the rural market town. It is one of many misdeeds attributed to a dog called “Black Shuck” and his legend has not waned. A black dog racing across a lightening bolt adorns Bungay’s coat of arms. In a 2003 song named for the beast, the English rock band The Darkness sang, accurately and succinctly, “Black Shuck / Black Shuck / That dog don’t give a fuck.”
Tales of monstrous black dogs, often with glowing red eyes, abound worldwide, but especially in England. Black Shuck is a popular one, but many regions have their own versions. They’re called The Gurt Dog, Padfoot, Barguest, The Hairy Hound, The Yeth Hound and the Grim, among other names. In the Isle of Man they’re called a Moddey Dhoo and in Scotland a Cù Sìth. Black dog legends inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and a Grim makes an appearance in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” A cursory search will reveal numerous Black Dog Pubs, Black Dog Restaurants and Black Dog Inns scattered across England.
Mark Norman has been researching black dogs for fifteen years. He grew up in Devon, an English county known for its coastlines and rural inland that is rife with legends and myths. But he didn’t develop a special affinity for black dog stories until he arrived at the University of Exeter, where he works for the student guild. There he discovered the archives of respected English folklorist Theo Brown, including seven whole boxes of black dog lore. Norman was hooked. He is currently working on a book about black dogs using Brown’s material, as well as collecting stories on his own.
Not all black dogs are bad, says Norman. While many are omens of death, “there are ones that are attached to a family in some way, there are ones that are seen as protective, there are ones that are attached to particular locations, so road dogs are common — dogs that follow a particular route for example in the countryside.”
A black dog’s motivation changes along with cultural perceptions of canines; in cultures where dogs are considered unclean they tend to be more nefarious.
Black dogs take many forms, but often have things in common. They are, of course, black. They are often abnormally large, with shaggy coats and have glowing, enormous eyes. But curious variations abound. There are dogs who drag chains from their necks. There are dogs with no heads and dogs with human faces. There are dogs who dissolve into mist, dogs the size of houses and dogs who walk on their hind legs.
Tales of black dogs date back centuries. The earliest recorded appearance in English literature that Norman has found is from 1127. There are plenty of reasons people tell black dog stories, he says. Some of the stories were probably concocted to keep children away from dangerous places. But many black dog stories can be attributed to smugglers who wanted to keep interlopers away from their coastal smuggling routes. Smugglers were fond of inventing all sorts of scary stories to keep pests away: Norman has heard stories of smugglers painting the body of an unlucky horse with luminous paint in order to convince townspeople that a particular road was haunted by a headless horse and coach.
And people still see black dogs.
“I still get reports,” says Norman. “I’ve got pages of reports from various places since the year 2000, for example.”
There are whole websites devoted to black dog sightings, like the encyclopedic Shuckland, which catalogs sightings by location.
Some people have claimed that black dogs are actually leopards or pumas that roam England. Others think black dogs are a kind of hallucination caused by a dream state.”
And then there was the discovery this May that had news outlets breathlessly wondering if definitive evidence of Black Shuck’s existence had been uncovered.
“Is this the skeleton of legendary devil dog Black Shuck who terrorised 16th century East Anglia? Folklore tells of SEVEN FOOT hell hound with flaming eyes” crowed a May 2014 Daily Mailheadline.
Not quite, says Lisa Wescott Wilkins, managing director of Dig Ventures, a crowdfunded archeology excavation project. The group’s team unearthed the skeleton during a dig at the ruins of an abbey dating back to the 1100s.
“No, there’s no way,” says Wilkins, “There’s not even a dog alive besides maybe a direwolf on ‘Game of Thrones’ that would be seven feet tall from nose to toe – that’s massive!”
The skeleton, she says, was about the size of a Great Dane. Without radio carbon dating, they can’t say exactly how old the skeleton is, but they do know it suffered a wound to its leg that would have given it a significant limp and that it was buried in a grave.
The find resonated with dog lovers at the dig, Wilkins said, because “this wasn’t an animal that sort of crawled off somewhere to die, this dog had clearly been taken care of and buried out back where the sort of kitchen area of the Monastery would have been of the Abbey when it was active. So when we uncovered it, we were thinking to ourselves, god, these are clearly people who had an emotional attachment to this animal and cared for it during its lifetime. So for us the big story of that sort of moment was dog owners and dog lovers, and just thinking about what it would have been like when the dog was buried.”
Some people have claimed that black dogs are actually leopards or pumas that roam England. Others think black dogs are a kind of hallucination caused by a dream state. Norman allows that there may be some truth to those theories, but that he has also heard stories that he simply can’t explain.
“I’m not a paranormal researcher, I’m a folklorist; so to me, what they’re seeing isn’t important or relevant,” says Norman. “Because what I’m interested in is what they’re reporting, and how that fits into the other stories that people have reported over time, and how that shared consciousness or shared collective memory operates.”
Of course, sometimes the answer is earthly, as the author of Shuckland notes on a description of a “dubious sighting”:
“As the witness himself says, there’s a fair chance that on both occasions this may well have been an ordinary dog.”
In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” our hero is strolling along a beach when he comes across a man in his death throes, staggering and screaming before shouting his last words: “The lion’s mane!” His name is Fitzroy McPherson, and all over his back are thin red lines—which Sherlock notices because he’s a detective and all—as though the man “had been terribly flogged by a thin wire scourge.”
McPherson’s colleague, a mercurial fellow named Ian Murdoch, becomes a person of interest. He had, after all, once thrown McPherson’s dog through a plate glass window. But that suspicion falls to pieces when the dog-hurler himself staggers into Sherlock’s home in comparable agony, all marked up with the same red lines.
And then the answer hits the great detective. With a police inspector and a guy named Stackhurst he hurries to the beach and finds the culprit: “Cyanea!” he cries. “Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!” It’s a great jellyfish among the rocks. Shouts Sherlock: “It has done mischief enough. Its day is over! Help me, Stackhurst! Let us end the murderer forever.” And with that they push a boulder into the water, crushing the critter.
That’s a whole lot of animal cruelty in a single short story, and the severity of a sting from a lion’s mane jellyfish, known scientifically as Cyanea capillata, is highly exaggerated here. But this critter is actually far more remarkable than its fanciful villainization. What Sherlock failed to mention is that this is the world’s largest jellyfish, with a bell that reaches a staggering 8 feet wide and tentacles that grow to 120 feet long, far longer than a blue whale. And this monster is really, reallyloving the whole global warming thing, conquering more and more of Earth’s oceans in massive blooms. So please, if you will, welcome our new giant gelatinous overlords.
It’s those seemingly endless tentacles, hundreds and hundreds of them, that make this incredible growth possible, according to Lisa-Ann Gershwin, a marine biologist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “They’ve got all of these fishing lures out there at the same time,” she said. “Every single tentacle is out there to catch something. They can find so much food simply by multitasking, really.”
Lion’s manes will take just about anything, from the tiniest zooplankton—little critters and fish larvae and such that drift in the open ocean—to smaller jelly species and even their own kind. Their mighty weapons are stinging cells known as nematocysts, which on contact fire poisonous barbs into the prey (think Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, only nematocysts didn’t used to get me in trouble for spending so much money in arcades).
Though nowhere near as powerful of the notoriously deadly box jellyfish, the sting of the lion’s mane is more than enough to incapacitate small critters—and dish out searing pain to humans. (Gershwin herself once had a lion’s mane sting her foot, which “went all red and puffy” and felt like it was being stabbed with “thousands of needles.”) Thoroughly ensnared by the tentacle’s innumerable spines and none too healthy on account of the poison, the prey is reeled in. The lion’s mane can do this a single tentacle at a time, contracting the muscles in each until the prey reaches its curtain-like “oral arms,” folds of tissue in its bell.
From here the prey passes into the jelly’s mouth, which is really just a hole in its body that also functions as its anus, and finally moves into the stomach. “And then they have a circulatory system of canals where the nutrients from the stomach are just dispersed out to the rest of the body through this network,” said Gershwin. “It’s really, really simple, but it works really well. I mean, they’ve been doing exactly that for 600 million years, and it works so well they haven’t needed to change it.”
That’s quite an evolutionary sweet spot. Such a sweet spot, in fact, that the lion’s mane never bothered to evolve true eyes. Instead, these jellies have extremely rudimentary eyespots and can do nothing more than detect light and dark—no shapes and certainly no colors (interestingly, box jellyfish have eyes more like our own, complete with lenses and such, presumably so they can observe the terror they strike in humans). And a brain? Not really necessary, as it turns out. They do have nerve bundles that essentially automate all of their processes, but these are nothing like a brain as we would recognize it.
“A brain is kinda overrated, really,” said Gershwin. “We find it kind of entertaining, and a little bit important, but they do all the stuff they need to do without a brain. But so do venus fly traps. Lots of things can actually do kind of sophisticated behaviors without a brain.”
Reproduction for the lion’s mane, though, is quite sophisticated. Males release sperm threads into the water, and females hoover them up with their mouth-anus thing, a totally unscientific term that I just made up. Her eggs are fertilized internally, and when they hatch, the larvae roam around a bit inside her, then drift off to settle on the seafloor.
But these larvae don’t turn right into what we would identify as jellies, in what is known as the medusa stage, named after the mythical lady with snakes for hair. Instead, they become little white tubes with frilly ends called polyps, which wait until conditions are just right to actually clone themselves hundreds of times over, releasing baby jellies into the water column. Though scientists have yet to do genetic testing on this, Gershwin suspects that huge blooms of lion’s mane jellies could in fact all be clones from a single tiny polyp. It’s a bit like Attack of the Clones, only interesting.
And boy have they been blooming. Populations of jellyfish like the lion’s mane seem to be exploding in the world’s oceans—because, bluntly put, we’ve goofed. Global warming, overfishing, pollution, basically anything terrible we’ve done to the seas have been an absolute boon to jellyfish, according to Gershwin. Data on jellyfish populations is scarce, so nothing is yet definitive, but as Gershwin puts it, “we now find ourselves in the unexpected position of knowing that we have serious problems with stings to tourists and cloggings of power plants and salmon kills and whatnot, but really having little idea about the speed and trajectory in terms of long-term view.”
As humans, it’s clear we need to tackle the direness that is global warming, but the lion’s mane and its jelly comrades would really prefer that we didn’t. Not only do jellies grow faster in warmer waters, temperature is a pivotal factor in their reproduction. In some species, polyps will only develop as days grow longer in summer, but others instead wait until the water climbs to a certain temperature. Thus ever-hotter oceans in these times of global warming could make for more blooms.
In addition, global warming is monkeying with oxygen concentration in our seas, which is also great news for jellies. “Colder water holds more dissolved oxygen than warmer water,” said Gershwin. “So even a really slight warming—a degree, a half a degree, a quarter of a degree—we may not feel it, but it changes the amount of oxygen that the water can hold.”
And jellyfish are really good at living in oxygen-deprived water. Pretty much everything else in the sea? Not so much. “High-rate breathers,” such as beefy fish that need lots of oxygen to power their muscles, die off when jellyfish lazily cruise around, not the slightest bit fazed.
Then there’s the inflow of our sewage and fertilizers, nutrients that microscopic plants calledphytoplankton go ga-ga for. Their populations explode, and are then eaten by their animal counterparts, zooplankton, which are in turn eaten by jellies. But when blooming phytoplankton die and decompose, the bacteria that feed on them suck still more oxygen out of the water.
Add all of this to the fact that we’re overfishing the hell out of our oceans—eliminating not just jellyfish predators but also their competition—and we have a gelatinous, stingy mess on our hands. “It’s probably really tempting to think about jellyfish as these evil beings, we should extinct them because they’re bad,” said Gershwin. “But what they’re doing, whether it’s stinging us or eating all of the fish eggs and larvae or clogging up power plants or whatever, they’re just responding to what we’re doing.”
So we just may have unwittingly assembled an ever-growing army of jellies, led by the outsized lion’s manes, for all-out assault. And this time there won’t be a boulder-wielding Sherlock Holmes to come to the rescue. Which is just as well if his associates insist on throwing dogs through windows.
Browse the full Absurd Creature of the Week archive here. Have an animal you want me to write about? Email email@example.com or ping me on Twitter at @mrMattSimon.
“My light’s on. I’m looking for a fare. When the traffic moves, I’ll move.”
Paul’s black cab was parked lengthways across Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square in central London. Just as cab drivers blocked the roads in Paris, Berlin, and Madrid, drivers of London’s historic black cabs brought the city’s streets to a standstill as a protest against car-sharing apps like Uberand Hailo.
“How would I get arrested?” said Paul, the 35-year veteran cab driver, after a talk with the police. “I don’t think they will.”
An estimaged 5,000 cabs and motorcycle couriers snared up the city of Westminster. Moving as slowly as possible, and adamant that driving on a sunny afternoon wasn’t a criminal offense, cabbies showed their contempt for London’s transport authority with signs mocking Transport for London (TFL) for failing to enforce a law that regulates who can pick up passengers and charge using a meter in the U.K. capital.
The agency is, according to the signs, “Totally Failing London.” Uber is “Under Boris” Johnson, the mayor of London who supports big business, “Exempt From Regulations.”
Later this year, England’s High Court will decide if the smartphone app that Uber drivers use to calculate fares is essentially a taxi meter, which could send the multibillion-dollar firm back to the drawing board—in London at least.
“It calculates the time and distance. That’s a meter to me,” said Glen Chapman, a cabbie from south London.
Drivers also poured scorn on Hailo, another booking app for black cabs, after the company’s “betrayal,” when it opened the app to minicabs.
“How much are they charging—5 percent? Yeah, I’ll probably use them.”
But in the meantime, Chapman thinks Uber is gaming the system. “What this protest is about is enforcing the law. If you have a law it has to be enforced.”
“Look at this cab. It’s got to have strenuous tests. I’ve got to buy this cab, have all these meters, the insurance is a lot of money. And yet you can go and get a Prius and do the same job now. You don’t need to have any knowledge of London. Either enforce the law or scrap it all together, have a free for all.”
The regulations giving black-cab drivers special use of meters is a privilege that many cabbies, however, are less willing to give up or share with their big American rival.
“It’s not a monopoly,” Paul insisted as the traffic around Trafalgar Square was being diverted by police. “We’re governed by transport regulations. We have a meter set by the government. If people want to get in a minicab and be charged whatever firms want to charge, that’s up to them.”
“We’ve done the Knowledge,” Paul referred to the notorious test that black cab drivers have to pass before they can get a licence.
“Name me a road in London and I’ll tell you where it is. Have you ever used GPS? Has it ever taken you the wrong way down a one-way street? That’s why. We don’t need that.”
When the Telegraph tested black cabs against Uber’s minicabs this week, it found black cabs to be quicker. Unlike the Uber drivers, they weren’t baffled by a dodgy GPS system. The fare on the meter was just under a third more for a trip across London, although cabbies say their meters are more transparent than Uber’s prices, which have been criticized for surging dramatically during busy times.
But John Kearns, a 53-year-old who happened to be passing through London, made it known that the knowledge isn’t everything nowadays, which is why he didn’t complete his training as a cabbie. “I could see these changes coming,” he said. “These changes are here to stay.”
At the stroke of 3pm, the cabbies jamming the Mall leading to Buckingham palace got back in their cabs, started their engines and began to disperse; their hour of allocated protest time was over, and as one cabbie said, “We’re not going to start a riot.”
At the end of this summer’s day in London, it may have been Uber, the firm backed by Google and Goldman Sachs, that had its day in the sun. “Today we’re seeing an 850 percent increase in sign-ups compared to last Wednesday,” Jo Bertram, the firm’s U.K. and Ireland general manager, said.
After claiming that London was “voting with its fingers” by installing the app after seeing the protests, Bertram accused the London Taxi Drivers Association, which organized the protests, of “being stuck in the dark ages” and “holding London to ransom.”
With Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union officials shouting loudest above the din of car horns, comparing the plight of cabbies to those of dockers and miners, London’s drivers feared their trade was becoming a museum piece.
“It will be sad to see the old black taxi as an icon disappear,” said John Kearns, warning cabbies blocking Trafalgar Square not to scorn technology. “In the same vein, you could use the old telephone boxes. Most of the old red telephone boxes got shipped abroad. But tourists still come over and like to go in them.”
For London’s cabbies, despite a day of gridlock, the traffic still appears to be moving around them.
All photos via Lewis Parker
The specter of large-scale sectarian fighting that was put in motion by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad within days of the US being kicked out of the country in 2011 is finally upon Iraq.
As Wayne White writes, the surprise is not that Iraq is once again coming apart at the seams, but that it took so long. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, has spent much of the past year purging Sunni Arabs from the government’s ranks; pursuing a politically motivated terrorism prosecution of the country’s most senior Sunni Arab politician; and breakingup peaceful Sunni Arab protest encampments by force.
Though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a jihadi group that until recently was focused on fighting in Syria’s civil war, has been credited with leading the assault, reports from the ground make it clear that other disaffected Iraqi Sunnis – former Baathists, other Islamist militias – participated in the fight. In Mosul, which fell Tuesday, the Iraqi Army was widely disliked andseen as occupiers from the Shiite south. Sunni insurgents are now pushing south.
ISIS has opened prisons, and residents of Mosul and towns like Tikrit have flocked to the fight against the central government. With the Iraqi military in disarray and Kurdish forces, probably the most capable in Iraq, focused on defending their territory and expanding it to oil-rich Kirkuk, it’s anyone’s guess how far the uprising will advance.
What are the options and likely responses of the key players, near and far, in the Iraqi crisis?
Iran and Hezbollah
In the 1980s, Iran waged a bloody war with Iraq that left an implacable enemy and rival in the form of Saddam Hussein on its doorstep until he was removed by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now, almost 35 years on, it has a friendly government led by Shiite-Islamists in Baghdad. It has no desire to see a reassertion of Sunni Arab power in Iraq.
Persistent reports from Iraq suggest that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are already in Baghdad advising Iraqi government troops. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated on state television today that his country is ready to get into the thick of the fight.
“This is an extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely,” Rouhani said of ISIS, adding that Iran would not “tolerate this violence and terror” in its neighbor. “For our part, as the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran we will combat violence, extremism and terrorism in the region and the world,” he said.
Then there’s Lebanese Shiite army Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and has been fighting on the side of the Syrian government against ISIS and other rebels. Could it move into Iraq and help shore up Maliki? This would be a higher priority for Iran than defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Hezbollah is tied up in Syria.
Moreover, ISIS and its allies have captured an array of US-supplied weapons from Iraqi forces, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. Pictures have started to circulate of some of these weapons being moved into Syria, where ISIS has been battling other rebel groups for control of the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor. If they can win there, and consolidate their position in Iraq’s Niniveh Province (of which Mosul is the capital), their ability to threaten Assad will grow.
The United States spent roughly $2 trillion on the war in Iraq, and trained and equipped what US politicians and officers repeatedly said was a capable and professional army. That claim has been shown in recent days to have been, at best, overly optimistic. The US accelerated the delivery of helicopters and missiles to Baghdad earlier this year, but that aid has done little good.
In 2011, Maliki was glad to see the back of the US, as were his allies in Tehran. Now he seems to be turning to the US as a potential savior. The New York Times reports that Maliki asked the US to conduct airstrikes on insurgents last month but was rebuffed. Why? The Obama administration worried that any military support would be useless without a change in political course from Maliki, whose actions have consistently goaded the country’s Sunni Arab minority closer to insurrection.
Could the US help now? It’s certainly within American military abilities. But holding territory requires boots on the ground, and nobody is talking about US ground forces going in. Iraq’s military does not seem sufficiently organized for a counter-offensive at this point, with battles raging in Baiji, an oil-refining town north of Baghdad, and on the outskirts of the Shiite shrine city of Samarra. For now, Iraq’s security forces seem intent on holding what they still have, not retaking what they lost.
Kurdish forces are now in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they’d like to annex into their autonomous territory, and are also providing aid and shelter to refugees fleeing Mosul, a short distance from the area of Kurdish control. Kurdish leaders has been locked into a dispute with Baghdad for years over control of oil revenues in northern Iraq, and will likely demand concessions from Maliki in return for helping him to regain Mosul.
Those are concessions that Maliki is unlikely to make at the moment, with the next government still to be formed. And the Kurds, in the process of getting what they want, may be happy to see Baghdad weakened.
The Iraqi government and allies
Maliki has called for arming of civilians to fight ISIS – which probably means Shiite militias. The Iraqi parliament failed to reach a quorum for a planned vote on a state of emergency that would give Maliki almost unchecked power. Given that the government has routinely jailed and tortured political opponents with the powers it already has, alarm bells should be ringing. More power for Maliki could well mean more such abuses, and more fuel for the Sunni Arab uprising.
Other Shiite politicians and militia leaders appear to be in the process of mobilizing followers. In Baghdad’s sprawling Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, residents have been stockpiling weapons and getting organized. Sadr, a fiery cleric whose Mahdi Army repeatedly confronted the US and engaged in attrocities against Sunni Arab insurgents and civilians during the occupation of Iraq, called yesterday for the creation of what he called “peace units” to defend Muslim and Christian shrines in the country.
The fear is that should Shiite militias, either aligned with Sadr or other groups, enter the fighting, they would engage in the kind of sectarian reprisal killings that drove Iraq’s conflict in 2006 and 2007, when tens of thousands were killed. But with each ISIS success, this scenario looks more likely.
Iraq’s government is also at the moment technically a lame duck. A bloc of Shiite parties behind Maliki won the most seats in parliamentary elections last April, but coalition building is needed before a government can be formed. When results were announced last month, Maliki seemed a shoo-in to retain the top spot.
But now, all bets are off in Iraq.
If you haven’t read “Futebol,” Alex Bellos’s superb book about the history and culture of Brazilian soccer, a more opportune time to do so than right now is unlikely to present itself for quite a while. The quadrennial FIFA World Cup Finals begin tomorrow, when the host nation, Brazil, opens the tournament in São Paulo against Croatia. As usual, the Brazilians are among the favorites to win the championship. One of the primary pleasures of Bellos’s book, which was first published in 2002, and has been updated and reissued for the 2014 Cup, is its focus away from the obvious. “Futebol” begins not with Pelé or Socrates or Ronaldo or any of the country’s other single-name soccer deities, but with a chapter on a handful of Brazilian players who have relocated to the frigid Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic, to play in the Faroese League and earn additional income laboring in fish-processing plants. The local teams, like many others around the world, are willing to pay a premium for the cachet of having a Brazilian player on their squads. As Bellos observes, “The phrase ‘Brazilian footballer’ is like the phrases ‘French chef’ or ‘Tibetan monk.’ The nationality expresses an authority, an innate vocation for the job.”
The most recognizable symbol of Brazilian soccer—and therefore of Brazilian identity—is the canary yellow jersey worn by the national team, and by millions of supporters around the globe. In New York, London, Tokyo, and many other non-Brazilian locales, those shirts will appear in the coming weeks like late-summer flowers, blooming as long as the hosts remain alive in the tournament. Appropriately, Bellos devotes an entire chapter in his book to Aldyr Garcia Schlee, the unlikely designer of that world-famous strip, who came up with the design in 1953, when he was nineteen, and went on to become a prize-winning writer.
The need for a new uniform arose from the most traumatic defeat in Brazilian soccer history. In 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the Cup, the home team lost to neighboring Uruguay in the final, which was played in front of two hundred thousand spectators at the Maracanã Stadium, in Rio. The tournament, which was to have been the crowning moment for Brazilian soccer, is now remembered only for “The Defeat,” or “The Fateful Final.” Ghiggia, who scored the decisive goal in Uruguay’s 2-1 victory, later said, “Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II, and me.” In the wake of the loss, it was felt that the team’s uniform—white, with blue collars—was insufficiently patriotic. With the support of the Brazilian Sports Confederation, the Rio newspaper Correio da Manhã held a competition to design a new strip using the colors of the Brazilian flag.
Garcia Schlee, who was then an illustrator living in the town of Pelotas, near the Uruguayan border, created more than a hundred designs for the competition. Initially, he recalled, he was put off by the idea that all of the national colors had to be included on the shirt: “How can you put yellow and white together on a shirt—what you get is the national team colors or the Holy See!” Eventually, he settled on the yellow shirt, blue shorts, and white socks that have become so familiar to soccer fans. The design bested three hundred others. Part of Garcia Schlee’s prize was an internship at the sponsoring newspaper. The shy young artist moved to Rio from the provinces and was given lodgings with the members of the national team. It was an unhappy arrangement. Garcia Schlee was shocked by the drinking and womanizing that went on. “The players were a bunch of scoundrels,” he told Bellos. He soon returned to his home state of Rio Grande do Sul, where he has lived ever since.
The new uniform did not immediately change Brazil’s fortunes. Though they defeated Chile 1-0 at Maracanã in the strip’s début, Brazil lost to Hungary in the quarterfinals of the 1954 World Cup, in Switzerland. It was not until 1958, in Sweden, that the Brazilians finally became world champions. Ironically, they were prevented from wearing Garcia Schlee’s design in the final, because their opponents, the host nation, also wore yellow. Brazil had not brought another color to wear in Sweden. Bellos describes how the team improvised what has now become its alternate strip: “Having no other kit prepared, Brazil cut off the national emblem from its yellow tops and sewed them on to blue shirts bought at the last minute in Stockholm city center.” It was not until 1962, in Chile, that Brazil hosted the World Cup trophy while wearing Garcia Schlee’s shirts. (They also won it all in 1970, 1994, and 2002.) In 1996, Nike reportedly paid as much as two hundred million dollars for the rights to the Brazilian jersey, then the largest single sponsorship with a national sports team.
As Brazil’s football team prospered, Garcia Schlee endured a number of setbacks. After a military coup in 1964, he was imprisoned and lost his teaching job. His doctoral thesis on “national self-determination” was impounded by the army, delaying his degree by a dozen years. Nevertheless, he went on to a successful career as a journalist, university professor, and novelist. None of Garcia Schlee’s fiction has been translated into English, which seems like a missed opportunity for an intrepid publisher. His 1995 collection, “Cuentos de Fútbol,” would have had a built-in marketing campaign around the 2014 Cup if it had been released this spring. Garcia Schlee’s work, written in Spanish, not Portuguese, focusses on the complexities of identity in borderlands between Brazil and Uruguay. “My writing is about the other side. It’s an attempt to overcome the dividing line,” he has said.
Though he continues to live in Brazil, Garcia Schlee’s soccer loyalties have long been with neighboring Uruguay. On the day of “The Defeat,” in 1950, the fifteen-year-old Garcia Schlee had gone across the border to see a matinée of the latest Roy Rogers film. The screening was interrupted to announce the news of Uruguay’s victory at the Maracanã, and to play the Uruguayan national anthem. Garcia Schlee said that it was impossible not to become a fan of Uruguay at that moment. The fact that he designed the most recognized icon of his native country does not sway him. “The shirt is not a symbol of Brazilian citizenship. It is a symbol of corruption and the status quo,” he said. According to Bellos, Garcia Schlee’s family believes that the author’s obsession with Uruguay is “irrationally contraire.”
A two-time champion, Uruguay will also be participating in this year’s World Cup. (The team finished fourth in 2010, while Brazil was knocked out in the quarterfinals.) Uruguay is sixth in the latest FIFA world rankings, two spots below the hosts. With England and Italy in its group, Uruguay faces a daunting task, but it is quite conceivable that the team will advance to the knockout stages. It may be too much to hope for, but could one conceive of a more dramatic final than a rematch of 1950? If Brazil were to lose, would a new uniform design be required?
Photograph by Buda Mendes/FIFA via Getty.