Lawyer learning ABCs: Accountability, bodies and conspiracy

American Bar Association Journal

By Terry Carter

The federal city teems with young comers who like to think of themselves as insiders, or who work 24/7 trying to worm their way in.

The coin of the realm comes in small denominations, pennies and nickels of information and knowledge and contacts. Pile up enough of them, and they become the dollars of power and influence—the realm’s raison d’etre.

Along the way a few learn of skeletons in closets and sometimes even where bodies are buried. But there’s a new twist in the path being cut by 32-year-old Mark S. Zaid.

Among other things, the gadfly lawyer has moved from amateur to professional status in, quite literally, finding and knowing where bodies are buried and digging them up.

An admitted recovering conspiracy theorist, Zaid wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on the Kennedy assassination. He recently "donated" about a quarter-million dollars’ worth of his time in a similar matter, his only civil trial to date. In that one, he failed to convince a Baltimore judge that the body of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, should be exhumed to put to rest theories that someone else is buried in the grave.

That’s just one from a long list of quirky, sometimes high-profile cases. This is a guy who went fishing for the hell of it in the National Archives, asking through the Freedom of Information Act for the 10 oldest classified documents in the federal government. The CIA is still fighting in court to keep Zaid from getting his hands on those 80-year-old recipes for disappearing ink used by the Germans during World War I.

"It’s like trying to classify Morse code or Indian smoke signals," Zaid says.

It is that kind of seemingly mindless hoarding and hiding of government information that prompted Zaid to create and manage, almost as an adjunct to his private law practice, the James Madison Project. The quote from Madison himself on the Web page
(www. says it all:

"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

Curiously for this town, Zaid is an equal opportunity thorn out to pierce the sides of suit jackets bearing both elephants and donkeys on the lapels.

It won’t do to compare him with Larry Klayman, whose Judicial Watch boasts 31 lawsuits against the Clinton administration. The controversial Klayman has collected several pelts and quite a few gallons of blood—from campaign finance and FBI "Filegate" to Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Vince Foster. Klayman wears his ideology and agenda on his sleeve.

A few more examples of Zaid’s handiwork for government accountability and reduction of secrecy indicate his willingness to move all over the gameboard:

• Represented in a lawsuit that prompted U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to intervene and order the unfettered release of financial disclosure information filed by federal judges. But, in a cat-and-mouse game similar to the one about invisible ink, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has refused to release the information till the suit is dropped, and Zaid’s client refuses to drop it till the documents are released.

• Represented conservative activist/talking-head Arianna Huffington in Freedom of Information Act litigation to force the release of Army records that led to the exhumation of Clinton’s former ambassador to Switzerland. M. Larry Lawrence had lied about his military service and Huffington believed that dishonored others interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

• Has pending lawsuits challenging the use of pre-employment polygraph tests by agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Secret Service.

• Represents a number of military personnel who refused vaccination for anthrax.

"I don’t think there’s anyone else out there like him litigating government information disclosure without a very specific agenda," says Thomas M. Susman, himself a member of the small number of lawyers here doing FOIA and Privacy Act work. Susman’s interest in open government, in part, led him to chair the ABA’s Administrative Law Section a few years ago. He now is on the James Madison Project’s board of directors.

Within a few months, Zaid expects 501(C)(3) tax status so he can seek funding from large organizations. Success tends to attract such money.

Zaid says being in the Beltway has greatly cut back his youthful tendency toward conspiracy theories. "Having gotten to know a lot of government officials very well while they’re in the job and after they’re out, I’ve learned that most conspiracy allegations grow out of incompetence and CYA," he says.

That last one isn’t a government agency.