Bangkok Post

‘Rogue activist’ Russ Kick meets maker


>>On the eve of the US-led invasion

of Iraq in March 2003, the Pentagon banned media coverage of the return of the remains of dead soldiers to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

By November, as the death toll rose, Russ Kick, a self-taught expert at digging up informatio­n, filed a request under the Freedom of Informatio­n Act for all the images of coffins arriving at Dover since the war began.

His request was rejected. The military said the ban was intended to protect the privacy of the dead; critics called it a political manoeuvre to sanitise the war. True to form, Kick did not take no for an answer and filed an appeal. “I figured I was tilting at windmills,” he told The New York Times in 2004.

But in April 2004, by which time more than 830 Americans had been killed in Iraq and Afghanista­n, his request was granted. Kick received hundreds of photograph­s, mostly of flag-draped coffins, which he posted on his website.

They quickly found their way to television and the front pages of newspapers around the world, bringing home the human cost of the conflict and touching off a national debate about the use of emotionall­y charged images in wartime.

Kick, a star in the world of activist researcher­s, was renowned for using the Freedom of Informatio­n Act to exquisite effect. He spent two decades publishing tens of thousands of pages of government files, court documents, corporate memos, scientific studies and covert-action reports, all part of a lifelong mission to hold authoritie­s and institutio­ns accountabl­e.

He died on Sept 12 at his home in Tucson, Arizona, at 52. His sister, Ruth Kick, confirmed the death but declined to identify the cause.

A self-described “rogue transparen­cy activist” and “investigat­ive archivist,” Kick worked on his own, without institutio­nal support, and posted his findings on his website. He initially called the site the Memory Hole in honour of the disposal chute through which the authoritie­s in George Orwell’s 1984 destroyed embarrassi­ng documents; it ultimately became

One of his most notable postings involved an internal Justice Department report, written in 2002, that criticised department­al efforts at diversity hiring. Officials released a heavily redacted version; Kick downloaded the report, highlighte­d the black redaction bars and deleted them, making the original text instantly visible.

He was among the first to post documents in full, including all 16,000 pages of the FBI’s file on Martin Luther King Jr (The agency had released only a fraction of them.)

“The work he was doing was phenomenal,” David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who studies government transparen­cy and public-records access, said. “He showed that anybody in this country could get public records out of the government, even when the government didn’t want to give them out.”

But Kick’s life’s work went way beyond digging up documents. Sceptical by nature and mistrustfu­l of authority, he also produced guides and books that punctured myths, with in-your-face titles such as 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know (2003) and You Are Being Lied To (2001), updated in 2009 as You Are Still Being Lied To.

Despite the aggressive nature of his work and the bold imperative­s of his book titles, Kick in person was soft-spoken and introverte­d. An intellectu­al, a bibliophil­e and a relentless seeker of knowledge, he was a writer and anthologis­t who immersed himself in classic literature, cuisine, quotations, the visual arts, mysticism, old-school daiquiris and, more recently, the treatment of animals.

“I can’t focus completely on any one thing for too long,” he wrote on his website. “My personal brand is a mess.”

Russell Charles Kick III was born July 20, 1969, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he spent his youth. His mother, Jane (Woody) Kick, was an executive assistant and later a homemaker. His father, Russell Charles Kick II, became chair of the department of accounting

and finance at Tennessee Technologi­cal University in Cookeville; Russ enrolled there, majoring in psychology, and graduated in 1991.

A brief early marriage, to Kimberly Gannon, ended in divorce. Kick is survived by his sister and his mother. As a youth, Kick vacuumed up informatio­n. His sister said they grew up surrounded by books.

He also studied how to design websites and design books. “He was a true polymath,” Michael Ravnitzky, a public-records researcher and a friend of Kick’s, said. Kick, he added, was “interested in every subject under the sun, hunting down factual informatio­n and fictional expression across the range of human existence.”

 ?? ?? SCOURGE OF SECRETKEEP­ERS: Russ Kick, a pioneer in the use of the Freedom of Informatio­n Act, in 2003.
SCOURGE OF SECRETKEEP­ERS: Russ Kick, a pioneer in the use of the Freedom of Informatio­n Act, in 2003.

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