The Chronicle Review

The Grad Student Who Wants to Bring Down Trump

Ryan Shapiro takes his crusade against government secrecy to the steps of the White House

September 18, 2017

Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review
Ryan Shapiro, 41, an animal-rights activist turned Ph.D. candidate in the department of science, technology, and society at MIT, is a self-taught expert on the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s the sort of scene that one imagines fuels President Trump’s sleepless, Twitter-trolling nights.

Some 75 politically active New Yorkers are gathered for a mid-April fund raiser in a tony, two-story apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood owned by a venture capitalist named Nihal Mehta and his wife, Reshma Saujani, a lawyer and former Democratic congressional candidate.

The guest of honor is Ryan Shapiro, a 41-year-old radical animal-rights activist turned Ph.D. candidate in the department of science, technology, and society at MIT. He is also a celebrated expert on the Freedom of Information Act, which since 1967 has given citizens the right to obtain information from any federal agency. Over the past six years he’s requested hundreds of thousands of documents and sued the CIA, the National Security Administration, and the departments of Justice, Agriculture, and Defense for noncompliance. The FBI, his most frequent target, has labeled his research methods a security risk. Progressive journalists refer to him as a "FOIA superhero."

"We’re all here tonight because we share fears about what the conflicts of interest and rampant corruption and muzzling of our government agencies mean for the future," Shapiro tells the IT entrepreneurs, lawyers, and assorted corporate creatives who fill the living room and spill up the stairs. "We’re all here tonight because the democratic process cannot meaningfully exist without an informed citizenry. And such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about what our government is up to."

The presentation feeds the room’s palpable angst. A majority of those assembled went to bed on November 8 panic-stricken that Donald Trump’s next reality show was going to air from the White House. On November 9, Shapiro awoke determined not to watch it sitting down.

So Shapiro and his partner in FOIA litigation, the D.C.-based lawyer Jeffrey Light, who had planned to hound President Hillary Clinton on their own dime just as they had Barack Obama and George W. Bush, decided to drop everything and concentrate on the new administration’s unapologetic opacity. "This country has gone from bad to worse to ‘Oh my God,’ " Shapiro says later. "We can’t just go after intelligence agencies now. We need to go after the Trump administration on the whole. And this requires us to really scale up."

Before Inauguration Day, Light, Shapiro, and three other partners christened Operation 45, which will use the FOIA to hold the 45th president accountable for his dealings in office and beyond. "We would like to be part of the avalanche that eventually delegitimizes this administration," says Sarahjane Blum, a longtime animal-rights activist who calls herself the "Swiss Army knife" of the project.

When Lyel Resner, a former MIT student familiar with Shapiro’s efforts and shooting-star status among young progressives, heard of the launch, he and Mehta worked to help Shapiro and Co. create an umbrella nonprofit group with the decidedly nonpartisan name Property of the People.

On this night, the team hopes to match the nearly $50,000 that Operation 45 has already raised via GoFundMe. The money will allow Shapiro and Light to pay their way and begin recruiting outside legal help. By end of year, they hope to have a $300,000 operating budget to sustain various endeavors. "I really do hate bragging," Shapiro says as his audience begins to consider whether or not to log in to their PayPal accounts. "But we are hands down the best at this game. In fact, we’ve essentially invented the game. There is no one else even playing the game at the level we are."

“If Ryan was just a tattooed guy doing FOIA without academic credentials, maybe we'd be fighting an uphill battle.”
Shapiro’s résumé is catnip for the crowd. His journey from research-obsessed academic to celebrated FOIA advocate has earned him coverage in prominent publications like Mother Jones, Huffington Post, and The Nation, which opined in early February that Operation 45 was among the "most interesting or promising" grassroots groups poised to resist the president. He’s also a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard University, a credential that evokes cerebral weight and digital savvy.

With professorial authority, Shapiro delivers his 20-minute presentation at hyperspeed, as is his wont, so there’s time left to explore the logistical and legal vagaries of FOIA, "one of the most underappreciated elements of the entire American experiment." Used to talking with reporters and firing up crowds at events such as the Animal Rights National Conference and DEF CON, a venerable convention of hackers in Las Vegas, Shapiro has also learned to pepper his talks with one-liners that are equal parts biographical, informational, and memorable:

One of his favorites: "Everyone hates being lied to, but I really, really hate being lied to."

Another: "We all have traits that are maladaptive or adaptive. My contempt for agencies, and OCD, and need for conflict have not always been the best traits. When it comes to FOIA, though, it’s a ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning kind of work.’ "

It’s an infectious communication style that appears guileless, which by all accounts is both an accurate reflection of Shapiro’s character and a trait he has learned to shape into a formidable brand.

Nazis.

"Very little in the world more powerfully impacted my thinking as a kid," Shapiro says. "I learned about the Holocaust at 5 or 6, and became an atheist. But I grew up in a Reform Jewish house in Washington, D.C. And as Peter Novick wrote in his phenomenal The Holocaust in American Life, there is only one thing uniting American Jewry: It’s not a position on Israel. It’s not a belief in God. It’s the notion that, but for an accident in time and space, you could have been smoke coming out of a stack in Poland."

Shapiro read everything he could get his hands on about Hitler’s murderous regime. Before long, what came to animate his adolescent imagination wasn’t the gas chambers but the German public’s everyday acquiescence.

"Concentration camps were adjacent to towns and small cities," he says. "You have a situation where there was an actual wall. On one side of the wall, you had human beings subjected to among the worst horrors in human history. On the other side of that wall, you had people literally shopping. What terrified me was that radical abandonment. That haunted me. It does to this day."

Sensitive, inquisitive, and ferociously autonomous, the teenage Shapiro — whose first middle-school research paper focused on the executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti — became politically engaged and found expression in the punk-rock movement of the late ’80s. "It gave me a vocabulary for all the anger, rage, and disappointment in the world," he says. "It saved my life." (In 2013, the Mother Jones profile of Shapiro was at first headlined "Meet the Former Punk Rocker Who Can Liberate Your FBI File." He took the editors to task. "I ain’t no former punk rocker," Shapiro says. "I made it a fact-checking issue. My work is directly animated by punk rock." The word was removed from the online version.)

After high school, Shapiro was driving to a mall to buy a Mother’s Day gift when, for the first time, he considered the factory farms rushing past his windshield. "In that moment, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s tens of thousands of sentient lives on the other side of those walls being enslaved and tortured. And I’m driving past them to go shopping.’ I almost vomited. And at that moment, I knew I needed to actively work against these environmental crimes."

As an undergraduate film student at New York University, Shapiro became immersed in the radical animal-rights movement, co-ordinating aggressive civil disobedience on campus and in the city. In 1997 he met Blum, then a sophomore at Vassar College. The two of them began a romantic relationship, fueled by their common cause, that would last for six years. "When I met Ryan, he was, in the most important ways, exactly the same as he is today," she says. "There was nothing that daunted him in terms of being a big idea. His attitude was, ‘We’re going to think as big as possible until somebody tells us we can’t.’ That’s really infectious."

Andy Stepanian, another partner in Property of the People and creative director of The Sparrow Project, which organized a seminal protest in support of Edward Snowden in 2013, met Shapiro and Blum in the NYU days. He fondly remembers the time they chained themselves to a Macy’s store using rebar and cement. "In those years, Ryan and Sarah commanded a tenor of leadership, even though the groups we were involved with operated nonhierarchically," he says.

“I became increasingly enthusiastic about the academy as a site in which to produce dangerous knowledge.”
Stepanian was indicted in 2004 and was sentenced to three years in prison for violating the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, passed in 1992 but enforced more vigorously after September 11, 2001. In 2006 the law was amended to become the Animal Terrorism Act, which increased penalties further and drew the ire of civil-liberties advocates. Shapiro and Blum became co-plaintiffs, along with three others, in a lawsuit challenging the ATA. The case was dismissed.

A few years earlier, Shapiro and Blum had narrowly avoided jail time themselves. In 2003 they finished a 16-minute documentary, Delicacy of Despair, an exposé on foie gras in New York, in which they filmed and then released emaciated ducks and geese. The work became an underground sensation that bubbled up to the mainstream. Animal Planet did a feature on the fresh-faced filmmakers and the animals they had taken and transported to a holistic veterinary clinic for physical therapy. The cable-TV channel also aired some of the film’s deeply disturbing footage, which includes geese being force-fed, stuffed into steel cages, and rendered so helpless that they couldn’t fend off the bites of stray rats. The film sparked a movement in California, where, in September 2004, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning the production and sale of foie gras.

It also led to Blum’s and Shapiro’s arrests on charges of felony burglary. Both of them expected to go to prison. Thanks to a good defense, however, and a district attorney whom Blum guesses was averse to bad publicity, the charges were conditionally dropped in 2004. "I didn’t know what to do next," Shapiro says. "The entire model of activism that I and other people had pursued for the previous decade with impunity was made untenable, because the movement was suddenly considered the nation’s number-one domestic-terror threat."

Blum, who was enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in Georgetown University’s history program, went home to New York to take care of her ailing mother and "keep her nose clean." Shapiro completed a graduate degree in modern American history at American University and decided to enroll at MIT and keep his head down.

Trained as an archival historian, Shapiro doesn’t trust people’s memories. He wants to see the paper. When he began writing his doctoral thesis on the history of the animal-rights movement, which dates to the late 1800s, he was able to find reams of early material in archives and libraries around the country. When he began looking for documentation about radicals in the more modern movement, though, he discovered that much of what he was seeking was housed by national-security agencies, particularly the FBI.

Knowing that he needed to learn how to submit FOIA requests for the information, he decided to test the process by asking for his own FBI file. The agency responded that there wasn’t one. "I was a little hurt," Shapiro jokes. But he knew there would be a file on a friend who had spent time in federal custody. Again, the agency claimed there was no record. "Oh, I get it. I get it," he says in a singsong voice. "This is my fault. I was being naïve. I’m being lied to."

Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review
Ryan Shapiro
From that moment on, Shapiro’s distaste for the FBI, his fear of government secrecy, and his talent for unearthing and cataloging massive data sets led to a fixation on FOIA. "I started submitting thousands of experimental requests to try and map out the nature and architecture of FBI noncompliance with the FOIA," he says, "because secrecy is a cancer on the body of democracy." He also expanded the scope of his thesis to explore "the apparatus of national security to marginalize animal-rights activists as threats to the state."

According to news reports, the Department of Justice labeled Shapiro the nation’s "most prolific" FOIA requester and a security threat based on the so-called mosaic theory of intelligence. The essence of the theory, which took root during the Cold War, is that hostile parties like Shapiro, who don’t have any direct evidence, will cast a wide net and piece together indirect evidence to create a larger picture, revealing information that could be harmful to the state.

To his partner-in-litigation Jeffrey Light’s way of thinking, the accusation is nonsense, since all information is interconnected, and the mosaic theory "has no limiting principle." Shapiro, asked if the claim might have some merit since he does, in fact, engage in data dives to see what he can unearth, gets irked. The Freedom of Information Act is crippled, he says, because security agencies can deny requests without consequence — even though the law took effect in 1967 and, after being amended to become more rigorous, survived a presidential veto in 1974. "Look, just like any researcher researching anything, I’m trying to map out what’s going on," he says. "That’s what the law is there for."

Regardless, the FBI and other agencies denied the requests, which led Shapiro to consider litigation. He was put in touch with Light, a FOIA attorney who was looking for clients. "You can only go so far without lawsuits," Light says. "So he can sue now, and I have a client who is able to come up with really terrific ideas, manage large projects, and review large amounts of data."

In the meantime, Shapiro’s dissertation was kept waiting. He insists he’s writing furiously and is going to finish it this fall. He jokes that his adviser at MIT, Harriet Ritvo, might "kill him" if he doesn’t.

Given how fondly Ritvo speaks of her student, he’s likely to escape unscathed whether or not he hits his self-imposed deadline. Still, she is concerned that Shapiro avoid 80-page chapters. "His strengths and weaknesses are actually the same," she says. "He’s an extremely strenuous arguer. And he is an indefatigable researcher. So you can see those are both enormous strengths and things that have to be controlled."

Proud of his academic pursuits, Shapiro is clearly anxious to jump the wall, doctorate in hand, and continue work on Property of the People. "Early in grad school, while I loved the opportunities to think about interesting things with brilliant people, I realized I didn’t think I was being productive enough in terms of social justice and social change, and the whole thing began to feel somewhat masturbatory," he says. "As my dissertation and FOIA work progressed, though, I became increasingly enthusiastic about the academy as a site in which to produce dangerous knowledge."

 Shapiro is also aware that credentials carry weight: "When you’re talking to a reporter or engaged in a debate, it doesn’t hurt to have those letters in front of your name."

Stepanian isn’t sure MIT made his friend more innovative, but he’s certain the doctoral work will pay dividends. "If Ryan was just a tattooed guy doing FOIA without academic credentials, maybe we’d be fighting an uphill battle," he says. "Credentials like his comfort the New York Times and Washington Posts of the world."

"There’s a reason why the cameras focus on Ryan and not Jeff, who is just as important in the process," Stepanian says. "It’s the tattoos. It’s the punk rock. It’s that, coupled with that high-academia approach to things, that makes it different. To the rest of us, he represents an expert. People like us need people like Ryan. We need our Noam Chomskys."

It’s the day after Property of the People’s first fund raiser, and Shapiro has joined Light for lunch at Red Bamboo, a vegan restaurant a few blocks from NYU. The place teems with millennial hipsters; Shapiro, who has lived on the water in Northern California since 2015, could be mistaken for the average customer. While weary from travel, he is high-spirited, in large part because this is a spot where he, his fellow anarchists, and other anti-establishment activists would meet back in the day, to plan their mischief.

This is the first time he and Light have seen each other for months, so they’re anxious to catch up on the 15 FOIA lawsuits in which they’re engaged. These include an action against the FBI for all the records on the Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump Entertainment Resorts, and Trump University; a suit against the FBI and the Secret Service for records on Donald Trump’s call during the campaign for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails; and a request for the FBI to release Donald Trump’s personal FBI file, which covers the period from 1946 to 2015.

It’s been agreed that Shapiro and Light’s lunch is off the record, as are most of the team’s interactions in New York, since they’re discussing confidential litigation and interacting casually. Still, even though they know everything is private, the two can’t help but say "This is off the record" over and again. Other utterances are "really off the record," "seriously off the record," and "way, way off the record."

Asked if this caution is not a little ironic, Shapiro counters that he’s "extremely candid but also values his privacy." He also emphasizes that there’s a difference between public documents and a private citizen’s day-to-day life. And there are subjects that are off-limits, including significant chunks of his childhood, the exact location of his home, and a sacrilegious tattoo on his forearm.

A few weeks later, he says that his experience at the Chelsea fund raiser was uncomfortable. He expected to perform in front of a cast of "centrist liberals" but didn’t have a natural feel for the room, both because there were a number of entrepreneurial CEOs there (not his natural constituency) and because he was asking them for money for his idea. That pitch, he says, was a first.

"It’s not that I sanitized too much of the message, but I had to pull back a lot of the ‘me.’ I just didn’t understand who they were. That was challenging, and I think I put myself on a leash as a result," he says. "That won’t happen again. Because people want to see someone talk who can’t be replaced by anyone else."

So the evening was, in a way, liberating, showing Shapiro that the best tactic is to be himself.

Thinking back to his activism at NYU, he says "it was always about finding the hook. We’d lock our necks to the doors and do other sensational things to get coverage. But there wasn’t very much message control." Now, he explains, "I use talking about me to get in front of the camera, because a bunch of people seem to feel edified by watching neurotic, intense, overly knowledgeable, brutally honest me. I’m just pathologically honest. Not in a mean way, but I don’t care for euphemisms."

"Mother Jones did a profile. I had a full hour on Democracy Now. It works. It’s not just getting the work done, but getting the work out in the world."

David Schimke, a former editor in chief of Utne Reader, lives and writes in Minneapolis.

Correction (9/18/2017, 6:39 p.m.): An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the timing of a paper by Ryan Shapiro. He wrote it in middle school, not high school. The article has been updated accordingly.