Log on, click in, get the dirt

Aug 18, 1999 at 12:00 am

It’s getting a little easier to know who not to trust these days, thanks to the Web site The Smoking Gun. The site, which posts documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), offers a sort of pop-culture-inspired civics class demonstrating the type of information that can be dug up if you know where to look.

For example, there’s the publication of 14 pages of one-time Harvard lecturer and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary’s FBI file. The documents, which include reports and interview transcripts, detail how the ’60s revolutionary, known for the line "turn on, tune in, drop out," 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 had 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.

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 have called 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 Village Voice.

But while he found the information interesting, he wasn’t shocked, and sat on the documents for a month before 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."

Bastone claims there were never any "high-minded goals" when he and his partner, Dan Green, conceived of the site, which covers everything from politics to crime, sports, historical matters, quirky tidbits, and lots of what Bastone calls "dopey celebrity stuff." Nonetheless, 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 his assassination.

The New York Times caught hold of the information, prompting an investigation that eventually halted the auction and led to discussions over who rightfully owns the diary.

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 between 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, there’s an important lesson taking place. Call Green and Bastone FOIA missionaries if you will, spreading the gospel that there’s a lot of information available if you know where to look.