SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We don't know what happens to us when we die, except maybe for one thing we learned this week. If we have an FBI file, it's entered into the public record. Anyone who asks for it can see it. Though, the request can take while.
We're joined now by Parker Higgins. He's the head of a new project called FOIA - that's Freedom of Information Act - the Dead. They submit a public records request for the file of every person notable enough to receive a New York Times obituary. And if a file exists, they put it on their website. Mr. Higgins thanks so much for speaking with us.
PARKER HIGGINS: Thank you.
SIMON: So you read an obituary in The New York Times, and then you send a Freedom of Information Act request?
SIMON: For every New York Times obituary since about November 2015 I've been doing that. And this started with me doing it manually - right? - with people I found especially interesting. And I realized that this problem was the sort that could be automated pretty easily. And really I think it's important to do it that way because the most interesting file that I get back will be one that nobody expected existed.
You know, if the FBI's conducting surveillance on a person who is notable for their role in the arts or for something that wouldn't normally get the attention of law enforcement and it turns out there's been that kind of surveillance or law enforcement attention, then that's the thing that people, I think, are really going to be interested in reading about.
SIMON: Give us some for instances if you can. I mean, I've read about - is it Hedy Epstein who was a Holocaust survivor?
HIGGINS: Yes. And she worked as an activist in all sorts of human rights causes. And it's really interesting to compare her New York Times obituary, which focuses very broadly all over her life, and then you look at her FBI file. And it all focuses on one short era of her life where she was specifically focusing on discrimination in housing. And so she helped bring all these federal cases, and so that's what the FBI recorded about her.
SIMON: Can you tell us what you discovered about a man named Walter Leonard?
HIGGINS: As with many of the people that I request for this project, I first heard about him through his obituary, which focused on the fact that he's considered the architect of the Harvard admissions policy that kind of created the modern model for affirmative action. And one of the things that I found out about him that as far as I can tell wasn't publicly available before this is that he worked in a federal prison in the '50s.
And this was - he was a black man, and this was in, you know, the Jim Crow South. And he was fired from that job - or he - his contract wasn't renewed at the prison in part because there were rumors at the time that he had tried to integrate the staff at this prison. And he said he wrote a letter to the warden saying that he wasn't involved in those efforts. And he said in the letter, even if I had observed some discrimination, I am intelligent enough to realize I don't have the authority to contradict the administration of this institution. And that was in 1955.
And then it was 15 years later that he did have the authority. And he was the administration of an institution that could really bring about a major push for integration. And I think that that sort of history - it's something that belongs to the public and wouldn't have necessarily come out. And I don't know if anyone's working on a biography of Mr. Leonard, or if he's, you know, one of those historical figures that there won't be that much writing about after his death. But I think that kind of detail is a good one to surface.
SIMON: I have to tell you, I - there's something about this that really makes me squirm because I think anybody who's ever done an investigative story knows that FBI files can be wrong. And so you have, you know, someone who is a public figure or not a very well-known public figure who dies, and suddenly, this information that may or may not be true is out there for the public. Is that a good idea?
HIGGINS: Well, I think that's a really important point. And I think it's one of the things actually that I'm hoping to highlight - that the FBI as law enforcement are imperfect. You know, you hear stories sometimes about the FBI getting it wrong in real time. And that can be a little charged politically in the sense that - you know, well, they're just trying to protect us or something like that that makes it hard to have that conversation about what powers we should give law enforcement to surveil us and to collect this information.
But I think when you look at it with a historical remove that's information that we should bring to conversations about the FBI today.
SIMON: Parker Higgins of the "FOIA the Dead" project. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.
HIGGINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.