“It has to be said: there has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration’s obsession with secrecy….It’s an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption.” — Bill Moyers, December, 2005
As the Bush Administration threatens and bullies the media, it is also engaging in an unprecedented rollback of public access to information that is an affront to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law forty years ago.
Gary Bass, Director of OMB Watch – a government accountability watchdog group – notes that unclassified information has been sub-categorized into oblivion by the Bush administration. The ambiguous, unclassified-but-inaccessible designations include: “sensitive but unclassified”; “sensitive homeland security information”; “critical infrastructure information”… and approximately 50 other invented obfuscations. Furthermore, Pentagon officials acknowledge that the GAO has rightly criticized the Defense Department for mistakenly marking unclassified matieral as “confidential or secret.”
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, President Jimmy Carter warned that the impact of this culture of secrecy has “….put the United States behind much of the world in the right to information.”
“We are sliding from a right-to-know society towards one based on need-to-know,” Bass says. “It’s a dramatic shift in our democratic principles.”
One Congressional effort to fight the secrecy trend has produced some strange bedfellows – from Grover Norquist to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama are co-sponsoring legislation that would create an online public database listing government contracts and grants. It is not so much a left-right alliance as a pro-democracy, pro-openness, and anti-special interest corruption movement.
Not surprisingly, the House version of the bill would reveal only grants on the database, not contracts. Why? Because contracts are awarded to businesses, while grants go primarily to non-profits. Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a sponsor of the House bill, danced around the issue in telling the New York Times: “Contracts are awarded in a much more competitive environment… That makes them more self-policing…. Grants are more susceptible to abuse.”
Hmmm….That’s one explanation for Davis’ position. Another is offered by Bass: “[Davis’] district is among the top 10 receiving contracts–and at least $670 million was not competed. There are only 47 districts that receive less federal assistance awards – grants, loans, direct payments, etc…. In other words, his district gets relatively few grants and lots of contracts. The Times reporter couldn’t get that information – it’s not public.”
The only reason Bass could access the information is because OMB Watch is preparing to release its own online database of federal grants and contracts on October 1. The group is purchasing some of the data from Eagle Eye – a for-profit operation that has provided clients with procurement information since the 1980’s.
Transparency advocates are also promoting the idea of reversing the presumption of how information is made available to the public. Currently, the public must initiate a FOIA request and the government must respond as to whether it will make the information available. The idea is that instead the government should have an affirmative responsibility to make the information available – it should have to justify withholding it. This would flip government out of the passive role of simply responding to requests and require government agencies to actively provide information to the public.
“We really should develop a public access framework for the 21st Century,” Bass explains. “We are using a 1960’s model based on the Freedom of Information Act. The democratic principle for the new model is: government has a responsibility to disclose information to the public; agencies must justify when not to disclose.” The FOIA would then become a vehicle of last resort – a part of a “safety net” for information access (along with whistleblower protection).
OMB Watch and other openness advocates are promoting a new informational architecture that would link key databases to build a product greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if government contracts and grants are available online, that information should also be linked to regulatory compliance and legal violations. Similarly, if the contractor database is linked to campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, a pattern of government spending may emerge that shows influence peddling previously not previously seen.
Mark Tapscott, a conservative advocate for transparency, noted recently that when the FOIA was enacted in 1966, a co-sponsor was Rep. Don Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld commented at the time: “Disclosure of government information is particularly important today because government is becoming involved in more and more aspects of every citizen’s personal and business life, and so access to information about how government is exercising its trust becomes increasingly important.”
1966 Rumsfeld had no idea what 2006 Rumsfeld had in store for us. Forty years later, it’s time to overhaul the system in order to reinvigorate our democracy. Otherwise, we will be forced to accept such arrogant and self-serving official explanations for lies, deceit, and corruption as, “Stuff happens.”