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Why Did the FBI Label Ryan Shapiro’s Dissertation on Animal Rights a Threat to National Security?

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Over the past decade, Ryan Shapiro has become a leading freedom of information activist, unearthing tens of thousands of once-secret documents. His work focuses on how the government infiltrates and monitors political movements, in particular those for animal and environmental rights. Today, he has around 700 Freedom of Information Act requests before the FBI, seeking around 350,000 documents. That tenacity has led the Justice Department to call him the “most prolific” requester there is — in one year, two requests per day. It has also led the FBI to claim his dissertation research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would “irreparably damage national security.” Shapiro discusses his methodology in obtaining government documents through FOIA requests, and the details that have emerged therein about the crackdown on animal rights activists.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Ryan Shapiro, who is called the ”FOIA superhero,” best known for requesting FBI documents related to animal rights activism, which the agency has dubbed the nation’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” The documents have been used in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights that challenged the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law targeting activists whose protest actions lead to a “loss of profits” for industry. One FBI file Shapiro obtained in 2003 details how animal rights activists used undercover investigations to document repeated animal welfare violations. The agent who authored the report said the activists, quote, “illegally entered buildings” in order to document conditions in a slaughterhouse, and concludes there is, quote, “a reasonable indication” they “violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,” unquote.

Ryan Shapiro, can you explain how these activists, who go in undercover to document what’s happening in slaughterhouses or on factory farms, are equated with terrorists?

RYAN SHAPIRO: I can try. So, in 2004, the FBI designated the animal rights and environmental movements the leading domestic terror threats in the country, despite the fact that neither of these movements have ever physically injured a single person ever in this country, and then, not long thereafter, as you said, the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, this pernicious piece of post-9/11 legislation, explicitly targeting animal rights and environment activists as terrorists. People have been prosecuted under the AETA, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, as terrorists under federal law, facing federal felonies for writing anti-animal-experimentation slogans on the sidewalk in chalk. And in this particular document, yeah, this is the FBI looking at animal rights activists who have gone undercover on a factory farm, and the FBI’s response to the horrific conditions on this farm, and the actions uncovering them, is to consider bringing felony terrorism charges against these activists. These are activists who are exposing animals confined in cages so small they can’t stand up, turn around or spread their wings, just horrific conditions which are the absolute norm on factory farms. And the FBI is considering bringing terrorism charges against these activists.

And I wanted to know why. And so, I have about 600 FOIA requests currently in motion with the FBI pertaining to the FBI’s campaigns against the animal rights movement. And the FBI—and I’ve sued the FBI, because they’ve stopped complying with my requests. And the FBI is now arguing in court that those FOIA requests themselves are threats to national security. Keep in mind, they’re not arguing that releasing the documents would be a threat to national security. They’re arguing that having to decide now whether or not they will release the documents—they want a seven-year delay so they can think about whether or not to release the documents; otherwise, it will constitute a threat to national security. Further, they argued the threat to national security is so severe that they can’t even tell us why. The FBI’s primary support for this radical and crazy argument, they’ve submitted to the court in the form of an ex parte in camera declaration—so, again, a secret letter from the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI to the judge about what a threat to national security complying with my FOIA requests—or even deciding whether or not to comply with my FOIA requests—

AMY GOODMAN: And you can’t see that letter?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Can’t see it. My FOIA attorney, Jeffrey Light, did a tremendous job fighting that, and we were able to get a very heavily redacted copy of it. But—

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you conclude from that heavily redacted copy?

RYAN SHAPIRO: It’s very hard to tell, but there was one footnote to a redacted section. So we don’t know what the section is, but the footnote is all about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. So the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has something to do with why the FBI refuses to release these documents. And I would encourage everyone to check out journalist Will Potter’s website and book, Green is the New Red, because Will Potter does a tremendous job exploring these issues, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a 2005 FBI memo obtained—well, that you obtained, Ryan, when an agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, writes, quote, “Organizers of the Animal Rights Movement can be discredited and removed from the scene by planting rumors that they are plants and/or informants,” unquote. He goes on to note there is, quote, “no risk of violence to these persons about whom these false rumors may be started as most of the animal rights people are also strict advocates of nonviolence against human persons,” unquote. Ryan Shapiro?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Yeah, absolutely. And Will Potter, who I just mentioned, wrote a wonderful piece on Green is the New Red about that document when I obtained it. I mean, here we see explicitly COINTELPRO-esque-like strategies from the FBI, spreading false rumors about good activists being agents, knowing that the FBI can get away with it now, because animal rights activists, primarily being nonviolent, won’t do anything about it, other than, at most, shun the person. I mean, we are seeing just the most cynical strategies coming from the FBI, and it absolutely very much has the feel of continued COINTELPRO activities.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your own animal rights activism that led you to become such a prolific FOIA requester? 2004, New York police file felony burglary charges against you and Sarahjane Blum for entering Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which is upstate New York, recording inhospitable conditions endured by the ducks living there. Ultimately, you both rescued and removed ducks from this Hudson Valley facility. What came of that?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Sure. So, along with a handful of other very dedicated activists, including Sarahjane Blum, I conducted a year-long undercover investigation of foie gras factory farms. Some of us were in New York, and some of us were in California. And Hudson Valley Foie Gras was one of those locations. The conditions were just horrific. The same is to be found on factory farms anywhere: animals confined in cages so small they can’t stand up, turn around, spread their limbs. Plus, these animals are being force-fed. Just horrible—

AMY GOODMAN: Where is this place?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Hudson Valley Foie Gras is in Liberty, New York. And we openly rescued a number of animals from—

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean, “openly rescued”?

RYAN SHAPIRO: We—as an act of civil disobedience, rather than as a clandestine activity, we openly rescued, so we filmed—we made a movie about it. We made a documentary, which you can find at We made a documentary called Delicacy of Despair, which not only showed the conditions, the horrific conditions on these factory farms, but also showed us openly rescuing animals from these farms, rehabilitating them and giving them new lives. Hudson Valley Foie Gras brought felony burglary charges against us for stealing their animals. And, yeah—

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

RYAN SHAPIRO: We ended up getting out of it, to our great surprise, with misdemeanor trespass charges. But the important thing here is that if we had done this even a year later, we wouldn’t have been fighting conventional state charges, even felony burglary charges, which have a hefty sentence; we would have been fighting federal terror charges. We wouldn’t have been getting out with misdemeanor trespass and 40 hours of community service for a group of our choice. We would have been sitting, like many animal rights activists did, colleagues of mine, sitting in federal prison cells for doing far less, convicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and its predecessor act, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your dissertation and why it’s been called a threat to national security. You go back to the 19th century. You talk about animal rights activism and government spying then.

RYAN SHAPIRO: That’s right. So the only part of the dissertation the FBI is designating a threat to national security is the FOIA component. They’re leaving the rest of it alone. But as I said, the FBI is arguing that to even decide whether or not to comply with my FOIA request constitutes a threat to national security so dire they can’t even tell us why. My dissertation is looking at the use of the rhetoric and apparatus of national security to marginalize animal protectionists from the late 19th century to the present.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us a brief history.

RYAN SHAPIRO: During World War I, when opponents of animal experimentation in the United States protested wartime animal experimentation, the self-described research defense community, so the pro-animal-experimentation lobby, alleged that American animal protectionists were agents of the kaiser, and there was an effort made to bring the new Espionage Act to bear against these animal protectionists for opposing wartime animal experimentation. And for another example, skipping ahead, during the early Cold War, the research defense community alleged that opposition to animal experimentation was a criminal and directed plot meant to undermine American security in order to pave the way for Soviet atomic aggression and overthrow of the United States government. And these arguments held a great deal of force. They were very convincing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what Upton Sinclair did in his famous book, The Jungle, 1906, I think it was. What exactly did he do in Chicago?

RYAN SHAPIRO: He brought attention to an issue that people flatly had not been paying attention to. In some way, it’s analogous to undercover investigators today. It is—or to FOIA work. It is bringing suppressed information to public light. And as with much suppressed information—again, there’s more suppressed information than there is unsuppressed information in the world—it can have a devastating impact on public opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: And he went underground into these slaughterhouses in Chicago, and he exposed what was going on there. He’s hailed as one of the great investigators and writers, Upton Sinclair.

RYAN SHAPIRO: Absolutely. I mean, the public is starved for information. We are flooded with information, but so much of it is useless or misleading or false or distracting. When real information about the horrific conditions that so many of us in this world—human, nonhuman—endure on a daily basis come to light, yeah, it can definitely set the public moving.

AMY GOODMAN: So, on this issue of terrorism and animal rights activism, what are the—what exactly is the government doing now, and what exactly are the movements doing? I mean, there’s a great trend in the United States for—for organic food, a whole push, especially, even in the medical community, for vegetarianism. Talk about how times have changed. And has that changed the attitude of the government when it comes to calling animal rights activists terrorists?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Well, a very important piece of this puzzle is the role of industry. Industry is definitely critical in persuading the FBI to target animal rights activists and environmentalists as terrorists. And industry is definitely a critical factor in pushing back against, absolutely, the trend towards vegetarianism, towards veganism. Even “Meatless Mondays,” the meat and dairy and egg industry has been just vociferous in its condemnation of Meatless Mondays just asking people to reduce their meat consumption or to eliminate their meat consumption one day a week, much less to go vegan. And so, we’re seeing a lot of conflicting pieces in play at the moment. We have reports out from official medical bodies that a vegan diet is as healthy or even far healthier, in many cases, than a standard American diet, and yet, at the same time, we have American politicians pushing back heavily against that, pushing—it isn’t surprising. The agricultural industry is a tremendously powerful lobby.

AMY GOODMAN: What role do corporations play in writing this kind of legislation, like the Animal Enterprise Act?

RYAN SHAPIRO: Huge. I mean, for example, the American—ALEC has just—

AMY GOODMAN: The American Legislative Exchange Council.

RYAN SHAPIRO: The American Legislative Exchange Council has played a profound role in pushing forward ag-gag bills. And these bills criminalize undercover investigations of factory farms or laboratories or fur farms. And it’s interesting, because there’s a relationship also between these ag-gag laws and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, because if you commit a crime, any crime, including violating an ag-gag bill, on a state level, then you can be prosecuted federally as a terrorist under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism law.

AMY GOODMAN: And what effect has that had on the movement, this whole issue, the specter of being charged as terrorists?

RYAN SHAPIRO: It’s definitely had a chilling effect on the movement. There’s no doubt. The animal rights movement is a very different place than it was 10 years ago. And different people have and different groups have responded in a variety of ways, but there is no doubt that there is a chilling effect. And that’s why, along with Sarahjane Blum and J Johnson, Lauren Gazzola and Lana Lehr, I’m one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act that the Center for Constitutional Rights—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that.

RYAN SHAPIRO: We argue that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act violates our First Amendment rights. We are chilled from engaging in the sort of advocacy that we once did, and that the AETA is overbroad on its face and it is—it suppresses our First Amendment rights. And so, the Center for Constitutional Rights is pushing that case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about, when an animal rights activist goes to jail, the difference, when they’re charged with this overlay of terrorism, in terms of time that they have to serve.

RYAN SHAPIRO: Well, yeah, as I mentioned, I openly rescued, or stole, animals from a factory farm, made a movie about it. I mean, this is—it’s a real crime. I did it as an act of civil disobedience, but it’s a real crime. And I did 40 hours of community service, and that was it. People have gone to prison for years for running a website opposing animal experimentation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end—we have about a minute to go—with your slogan, “See something, leak something.”

RYAN SHAPIRO: Right. So, secrecy is a cancer on the body of democracy. The records of government are the property of the people, but they’re consistently withheld from us on the basis of undefined national security. But as wrote Judge Murray Gurfein in his ruling against the Nixon administration’s infamous attempt to prevent The New York Times from publishing the leaked Pentagon Papers, “The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions.” And so, building upon this ruling, we as a nation need to foster a broader conception of national security. And in the interest of promoting such a conception, a conception borne of the free exchange of ideas among an informed citizenry, I call upon all of those with access to unreleased records about illegal, immoral or unconstitutional government actions to return those records to their rightful owners: the American people. Or, “See something, leak something.” The viability of our democracy may depend upon it.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you suggest people leak it?

RYAN SHAPIRO: It’s going to be different in all individual cases, but the information is not hard to find online.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Ryan Shapiro, for being with us, called a ”FOIA superhero” for his skill at obtaining government records using the Freedom of Information Act, suing several federal agencies, including the NSA, for their failure to comply with FOIA requests regarding former South African President Nelson Mandela. Ryan Shapiro is also a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thanks so much for being here.

That does it for our broadcast. I’ll be speaking in St. Louis celebrating the First Amendment with the Gateway Journalism Review Saturday night, March 29. Check out details at

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