Log on, Click in, Cop Out
It's getting a little easier to know who not to trust these days, thanks to the Web site The Smoking Gun (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/). The site, which posts documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), helps public figures come clean about some facts they don't necessarily want you to know about, while at the same time offering a sort of pop-culture inspired civics class demonstrating the type of information that can be dug up if you know where to look. The Smoking Gun's publication of 14 pages of one-time Harvard lecturer and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary's FBI file offers an excellent example of their work. The documents, which include reports and interview transcripts, detail how the 60s revolutionary, known for the line "turn on, tune in, drop out," actually copped out and snitched to the FBI in 1974.According to the documents, when faced with the prospect of doing hard time on narcotics charges, Leary informed on the Weather Underground, a radical group that helped him escape from a California prison a few years earlier. Leary told an agent he was cooperating not only to gain his freedom, but to establish a "collaborative" and "honorable" relationship with law enforcement. While his loose lips don't seem to have brought about any criminal charges, they could do some posthumous damage to his reputation.Bill Bastone, one of the site's editors, says he's amazed at the amount of interest the documents have garnered. Media outlets from around the world are calling for interviews. "I guess people like the idea that someone like him had...relationships one might not normally think a guy like him would have," says Bastone, whose "day job" is as a writer covering criminal matters for the (ital)Village Voice(ital).But while he found the information interesting, he wasn't shocked by it, and in fact admits he sat on the documents for a month before finally posting them."It certainly isn't the first time I've seen a drug defendant looking at a significant amount of time roll on people and start snitching out people. There's nothing special about that."And those in the know about Leary aren't too surprised by the revelation either."He was not a man of political principles. He'd do anything to get out of jail," says Todd Gitlin, a New York University professor and author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope Days of Rage." It's perhaps fitting that a man who broadcast his own death from prostate cancer via the Internet in 1996 should find new life online postmortem.In the same manner that they outed Leary, The Smoking Gun has exposed a number of other inconsistencies in people's public and private dealings. The site covers everything from politics to crime, sports, historical matters, quirky tidbits, and lots of what Bastone calls "dopey celebrity stuff."Though Bastone claims there were never any "high-minded goals" when he and his partner, Dan Green, conceived of the site, they've managed to break a number of stories.A recent example involved a diary that once belonged to slain black leader Malcolm X, which was on the auction block at San Francisco's Butterfield & Butterfield. Documents made public on The Smoking Gun indicated that the blood-stained book had been stolen at some point after X's assassination. The New York Times caught hold of the information, which prompted an investigation that eventually stopped the auction from taking place and led to discussions over who rightfully owns the diary.The premise behind the site is to give people access to primary source documents often used by journalists, attorneys and others, but rarely seen by the general public. Monte Paulsen, a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington D.C. and author of the forthcoming book, "The Buying of the President 2000," sees the benefit of the site as twofold. "We live in a republic that provides legal access to an awful lot of government documents, but there's a difference betwen technically having the legal right to go and get these things and the average citizen actually having the time and ability to do so," he says. "The Web provides an opportunity to put so many of those documents in a place where millions can see them easily. The Smoking Gun has gone a step further and made it fun."And while there may be a lot of Kidman/Cruise gossip and Brad Pitt tidbits on the site, even in such cases there's an important lesson taking place. Call them FOIA missionaries if you will. With more than 1.6 million pageviews in June, and July on track to beat that number, the site, which launched in April, 1997, is spreading the gospel that there's a lot of information available if you know where to look.Think of it as that fun, hip government teacher you wish you had in high school. The one who was in a band after hours, wore jeans to class and made learning fun. You got the message just the same as you did from the drill sergeant in 100 percent polyester pants and horn-rimmed glasses who drove a broken down, orange, Chevy Nova. It's just that when it was crammed down your throat with a sugar-coated spin you barely knew you'd swallowed anything at all.