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Exposing Murder Rings and McCarthyism: A Deep Dive into FOIA

One morning last October, a middle-aged man named Francisco Letelier stepped to a microphone in Washington, D.C.’s Sheridan Circle, surrounded by light Sunday traffic, and spoke to a gathering of maybe a hundred people. Introducing him, the head of the watchdog Institute for Policy Studies said Letelier represented “the power of persistence.” Letelier is an artist and the son of murdered Chilean activist Orlando Letelier. The gathering to commemorate his father had become an annual event; this was the 41st year since the murders of Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt.

Orlando Letelier was killed at this traffic loop by a car bomb planted by Augusto Pinochet’s henchmen. The car exploded in front of the Irish Embassy. There under the hard gazes of assorted international statues around the circle (Ataturk, Sheridan on his horse, Korean and Greek diplomats) stood a small, foot-high monument to Letelier and Moffitt. The stone said, “Justice, Peace, Dignity.”

I was there that morning because Scott Armstrong, a former Washington Post reporter, told me about the Letelier murder. It was a case, he said, where a Freedom of Information request had made a difference and sent ripples far beyond the United States.

Tape sealed the CIA’s reply to my FOIA request.

FOIA (pronounced foya) is an odd acronym that can seem obscure and inconsequential. A small proportion of Americans submits Freedom of Information requests. As a freelance writer, I’ve submitted relatively few FOIA requests to different government agencies.

For my latest book project, I began chronicling what happened when a 1940 factory fire in Baltimore triggered a series of events that caught three families up in World War II in dangerous ways. That search led me to file more FOIA requests – and to learn the vagaries in how the law is applied, and how FOIA can pay off. Read my story on The Millions.

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