Rescuing Knowledge, Free Information: The Memory Hole Is Back

I like documents. I like governmental and corporate documents that reveal what’s really going on. In 2000, I was working on the first anthology I edited for Disinfo – You Are Being Lied To (which was Disinfo’s first book). It crystallized a thought I’d been having for years: so many important official documents have already made their way into the world but have been ignored or forgotten. It was more than I could work into a book or even several books. I wanted to give lots and lots of documents a home, so I decided to create a website.

I launched the Memory Hole in mid-2002. The name comes from George Orwell’s 1984 (which changed my life when I first read it in the ninth grade, sending me down the path I’m still on). Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, going through political speeches, government forecasts, news/propaganda articles, etc. to change material that contradicts the current state of affairs in Oceania. The old material is sent down a chute – via a “memory hole” in the wall – to an incinerator. My website was to act as a reverse memory hole, saving documents that are inconvenient for the powers-that-be.

It’s important to remember the mood in the US when I started the site that July. 9/11 was still fresh (as were the anthrax mailings), having kicked us in the nuts just ten months earlier. The US was obviously rarin’ to invade Iraq, which indeed happened eight months later. We were a year and a half into what would be eight years under Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice, et al. Torture memos were being drafted. Screams were echoing down the halls of Abu Ghraib. Shit was dark.

I started uploading a wide range of sensitive material dealing with 9/11, war crimes, antidepressants, Sea World, Henry Ford, Columbine, police brutality, the National Reconnaissance Office, Big Tobacco and Pharma. Soon, I was posting documents that had been pulled offline: a US Geological Survey map of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Bush administration wanted to let oil companies drill there), the website of the Information Awareness Office, the Chong Glass website (shut down by the DEA when they arrested Tommy Chong on drug-paraphernalia charges), deleted articles from CNN, MSNBC, and PBS.

The Memory Hole hit a nerve and, to my surprise, became popular almost immediately. It first attracted mainstream media attention when I uncensored a Justice Department report with embarrassing findings about the lack of racial and gender diversity among the department’s attorney workforce. Almost half the document had been redacted, but I was able to remove the black markings.

The biggest moment came when I posted photos of flag-draped coffins (containing the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq) arriving at Dover Air Force Base. I had received them after filing a Freedom of Information Act request and appeal with the Air Force, despite the fact that the Pentagon banned their release. The next day, those photos were on every newspaper’s front page, and the story was in heavy rotation on all the news channels. Washington DC’s Project on Government Oversight gave me its annual Beyond the Headlines Award for The Memory Hole in general and the coffin photos in particular.

After several years of running the site, I got horrifyingly sick and almost died from what turned out to be mold overexposure. The house I was renting had huge colonies of black mold (and Penicillium, which is white) throughout the ceiling. I was too ill to run the site, or do much of anything, so it was frozen for almost two years. Plus, I had probably burned out and needed to pause anyway. Life has a way of forcing you to take breaks when you don’t do it yourself. I restarted the site in mid-2008 but could keep it going only for a year and a half before mold-related issues forced me to abandon it again.

Wikipedia notes that the site was hacked, which is technically true, but the implication that that’s why The Memory Hole went away isn’t right. It was simply a malware hack common among WordPress sites, which didn’t delete the site or force it down. I was just too sick, bed-ridden, and mentally foggy to do anything other than try to survive. I let the domain expire and cancelled the webhosting. I knew the site would live on in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, where there are still hundreds of mirrored versions.

When I was feeling a little better and needing to start earning money again, having burned through my savings during the mold years, I focused on editing anthologies having to do with my other interests, such as classic literature and comics (The Graphic Canon series), poetry (Death Poems), and quotations (Flash Wisdom).

I gave some thought to restarting The Memory Hole but never made any move to do it until early this year. That’s when two Memory Hole colleagues/friends independently asked me if I ever consider bringing back the site. A follower on Twitter asked me the same thing. Then Michael Morisy of Muckrock – a site that digs up important documents through FOIA and helps other people do the same – got in touch about possibly mirroring the original Memory Hole. Now the wheels were really turning. The more I pondered, the more I liked the idea of a resurrection.

In June, I launched The Memory Hole 2. Not only had the original domain name been snapped up by a squatter, but I liked the idea of adding “2” to signify that this isn’t the same site. It’s a sequel, a follow-up with a slightly different way of doing things. Some of the priorities of the old site just aren’t as important to me, while new concerns have come into focus.

I’m filing lots of new FOIA requests, which are already bearing fruit. Since the spring, I’ve been on a very productive hunt to find and retrieve deleted government documents, which I’m trying to organize and post methodically. The best stuff from the original site will be reposted, often with additional material and/or updated background info. I’m discovering lots of gems buried in online archives, and I’m on a quest to get my hands on paper documents languishing in libraries, so I can scan and post them.

There’s great material from the FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, TSA, DEA, Secret Service, US Marshals, NORAD, the Postal Service, and others in the pipeline. You’ll be seeing documents on chemical warfare, capital punishment, 9/11, asset forfeiture, immigration, marijuana eradication, CIA maps, biometrics, data mining, drones, Hiroshima, internal agency procedures, the Olympics, Guantanamo, animal experimentation, autoerotic fatalities (yep), and tons more, some of which I don’t want to mention yet.

Also, I’m running a very active Twitter account where you’ll find links to further documents, as well as news articles and online resources regarding transparency, secrecy, FOIA, etc., plus my own cranky comments about the paper chase.

So please stop by. Bookmark it. Pocket it. Like it on Facebook. Subscribe to the newsletter. The fun is starting again….