The ‘A’ in CIA Does Not Stand for Accountability

Recently, the CIA has been in the news. This in itself is unusual and the contexts of the news stories makes it even more so.  None of the stories are good news for public accountability.

On October 17, Reuters reportedCIA says mistakenly ‘shredded’ Senate torture report then did not” according to Christopher Sharpley, the acting CIA Inspector General, during his confirmation hearing before Senate Intelligence Committee as President Trump’s nominee for the position.

Sharpley said the CIA received the report in December 2014 on a computer disk, which was then uploaded into a classified system. Shortly thereafter, he said, the agency was told to delete it because of ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.

An email was sent saying the disk should not be destroyed, but Sharpley said he was told months later it could not be found and that an employee said it had been shredded.

But he said the disk was discovered later, after the FOIA litigation concluded that the report was a “congressional” document not subject to FOIA requests.

Sharpley said around that time, (Senator Richard) Burr (chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence), asked him to return the disk and he did so. (Emphasis added)

The timing is interesting….

Of course, Sharpley neglected to mention that the DC circuit ruled it was a congressional record for purposes of FOIA, and that the court explicitly said Burr’s letter was entitled to zero weight:

Before turning to an application of the law to the facts of this case, we must make it clear that we can give no weight to the letter sent by now-Senate Committee Chairman Richard Burr to the President in January 2015. The letter was sent after Appellants had submitted their FOIA request and after they had filed suit in the District Court. Therefore, the letter is a “post-hoc objection[] to disclosure,” and, as such, it “cannot manifest the clear assertion of congressional control that our case law requires.”

Sharpley also would not commit to protecting any future reports, such as one related to the committee’s probe of potential links between Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. This brought a rebuke from Senator Wyden:

“I think your highest duty here is to follow the law. The notion that the chairman asked for it and that’s all that governed your judgment isn’t acceptable to me.”

The above scenario is troubling enough. A POGO report the previous day—the day before the confirmation hearing—adds to the concerns.  As POGO points out, the Office of the Inspector General depends on whistleblowers to report waste, fraud, and other abuses. In the case of the CIA, however,

President Trump’s nominee to be the Central Intelligence Agency’s Inspector General—its top independent watchdog—is named in at least three open whistleblower retaliation cases.  …

Despite a statement POGO received from a senior Republican Senate staffer that Congress has a need-to-know: “There’s no question that information about outstanding retaliation cases involving Sharpley should be fully disclosed before members of Congress are asked to approve such a key CIA official,” POGO notes

It remains unclear whether Sharpley or the CIA has disclosed to Congress a complete list of the open matters, or any details concerning them. If not, Congress may still learn about them through other avenues: key members of a confirming committee are often provided any FBI files that contain details of cases involving the nominee, potentially including criminal or administrative matters. Such material, if it is available, is likely to be of interest for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must examine Sharpley’s fitness for office, as well as to members of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus and of the full Senate, who will be required to vote on his confirmation.

The Committee has not yet voted on Sharpley’s nomination.

Moving from the IG to the Director’s office, on October 20, the Washington Post reported that, according to CIA Director Mick Pompeo,

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”

As the Report states, however

This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies. It covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion. The assessment focuses on activities aimed at the 2016 US presidential election and draws on our understanding of previous Russian influence operations. When we use the term “we” it refers to an assessment by all three agencies.

We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion. (Emphasis added)

Greg Miller noted in the Post article that

“Pompeo’s mischaracterization of the intelligence report was the latest in a series of statements from the former Republican congressman that have seemed aimed at minimizing the significance of Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

Zinke Evading Public Scrutiny — and Public Comment — to Build a Road Through a National Wildlife Refuge

On July 12, 2017 and August 2, 2017, Defenders of Wildlife filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for all records related to the Trump administration’s consideration of a potentially illegal land exchange to remove wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from federal public ownership for the construction of a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Defenders of Wildlife received more than 600 documents including evidence that the Interior Department is pursuing the land trade with King Cove Corporation — and doing so as much under the radar and without public comment as possible.

In order to pursue the road, the Interior Department is preparing to set aside a decades-old ban on development in federally protected wilderness areas. As notes in her Washington Post article, the documents obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, primarily internal agency emails, reveal how much discussion is intentionally taking place out of public view as federal, state, local and tribal officials work to approve a land exchange.

Congress directed Interior in 2009 to study whether it served the public interest to construct a road through the refuge. Four years later, the department produced an environmental-impact statement that concluded that the project should not be pursued because many species would be harmed, as the road’s construction, use and maintenance would disturb and fragment their habitat. In spring 2017, Fish and Wildlife Service officials produced an updated analysis of the two routes Alaska is contemplating through the refuge. It concluded that both would have “major” impacts on brants, tundra swans, emperor geese, bears, fish and, potentially, caribou.

“Both routes are equally destructive to the refuge’s purposes,” one official wrote in an April 28 email.

The documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make clear that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has elevated the issue to one of the agency’s top priorities, and his appointees have taken deliberate steps to conceal the plan from the public.

At one point, a refuge official relayed his conversation with a department attorney about questions Zinke raised over public review of agency action related to Alaska’s survey of a possible road through Izembek:

He indicated the Secretary would like to see folks on the ground doing the survey in the next couple of days,” the official emailed colleagues. “He did not seem to [sic] excited about the direction that it was going out for public comment.”

In a separate exchange three days later, a senior Interior Department attorney in Alaska emailed another high-ranking official there to clarify that the land swap proposed by the town’s tribal corporation should be kept under wraps.

“I’m not sure if you were provided a copy of the letter from King Cove Corporation to Secretary Zinke requesting a land exchange so here it is,” the lawyer wrote. “I understand it [sic] King Cove is not going to make this request public but rather let the Department roll it out when it is ready.”

 

 

Secrecy Setback for Government-funded/Corporation-run Prisons

An August post discussed claims by private prison companies that receive federal funding currently that they are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests due to a loophole in the current law. On October 10, 2017, the US Supreme Court denied a petition by two private prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded as “CoreCivic”) seeking to block the release of government documents about their immigration detention practices.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Detention Watch Network (DWN) brought a case in 2013, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to force the US government to release of  records on a “detention bed quota” that requires funding for 34,000 beds for detained immigrants “at any given time.” As the corporations are funded by the federal government and perform a government function, the records are held by the government, not the corporations. A federal district court ruled in July 2016 that the government must release details of its contracts with private prison corporations.

The government chose not to appeal. The country’s two private prison corporations, however, intervened to appeal the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed their petition in February. GEO then petitioned the Supreme Court for a full review of the case, asking for the right to prevent the government from releasing information under the FOIA.

The Supreme Court’s decision lets stand the February ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, putting an end to the private contractors’ attempt.

On Tuesday, Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, said

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court has finally put an end to private prison contractors’ relentless attempts to keep their secrets buried. Private prison contractors have a long history of hiding profiteering schemes and covering up deadly abuses in immigration detentions. With this decision, the Supreme Court has signaled agreement that private prison contractors must not act with impunity and dictate government secrecy. This victory is especially important as we face a presidential administration committed to mass privatization as well as mass detention and deportation.

 

Trying to See Into, If Not Through, the Swamp

A recent investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times reveals that, at key regulatory federal agencies, members of the deregulation teams, have deep industry ties and are reviewing regulations their previous employers sought to weaken or kill. As ProPublica notes, “Appointees include lawyers who represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political groups raising so-called dark money and employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules. At least four were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone..  As ProPublica points out, however, “a full vetting of industry connections has been difficult because some agencies have declined to provide information about the appointees — in many cases, not even their names.”  It is not just to the media who have been stonewalled…

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is among a group of Congress members who wrote to Mick Mulvaney (OMB Director) and Neomi Rao (Administrator of OIRA) in August expressing grave concerns about the secrecy of the Regulatory Reform Task Forces, calling on the administration to release the names of all deregulation team members as well as documents relating to their potential conflicts of interest, and requesting information about the nature of their meetings. They have received no response to date.

The result of the information revealed by ProPublica and the New York Times, combined with the non-response from OMB, has led Cicilline and a group of other House Democrats to introduce a bill — the Determining if Regulatory Actions are in the Interest of the Nation or the Swamp (DRAIN the Swamp) Act — to require federal officials —before they implement significant changes in U.S. regulations—to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and project how much they would personally benefit from any particular regulatory changes. They would also be required to identify any conflicts of interest for President Trump or senior members of his administration when changing major rules. The bill is co-sponsored by leading House Democrats, including Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), and Lloyd Doggett (D-TX). As of this posting, it does not yet have a bill number.  To date, it has no Republican co-sponsors.

 

EDGI Provides Documented Evidence of Changes to Federal Government Websites

A new report from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) adds to its careful documentation of the dismantling of access to US government information — in particular federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure built to investigate, inform, and enforce public protections.

The new report, Confirmation of Changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Maria Webpage, confirms and documents changes to websites described by the Washington Post article,FEMA removes statistics about drinking water access and electricity in Puerto Rico from website”.

The toxic swamp of special interests leadership at Interior; where do their loyalties lie?

The Western Values Project has created a thoughtful and well-documented site — the Department of Influence  —  to document the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and political appointees at the Department of the Interior. Such information is particularly pertinent at a time when the Secretary of the Interior has stated — in a speech to an oil industry group — that almost one-third of career bureaucrats at his department are “not loyal to the flag, and not in lockstep with him and President Trump. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke said. “We do have good people, but the direction has to be clear and you’ve got to hold people accountable.”

Readers are reminded that the “swamp” of campaign — and Administration — fame is, in their minds, the career civil servants who take this oath of office

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God. [emphasis added]

Disturbingly (if not surprisingly), the link at the Office of Personnel for this oath leads to a page with this information:

You have reached a collection of archived material.The content available is no longer being updated and may no longer be applicable as a result of changes in law, regulation and/or administration. If you wish to see the latest content, please visit the current version of the site.

The current version of the site does not take you, however, to any information about, or affirmation of, the Oath other than a Affidavits form that includes the Oath and Affidavits As to striking against the federal government and one As to the purchase and sale of office.

Neither the Oath nor these affidavits require an affirmation of loyalty to “the flag,” to the head of the employee’s agency, to any outside interests, or — most importantly — to the President.

A Possible Step Forward on Defense Department Declassification

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 18 (HR 2810, sect. 1089) contains a surprising provision that requires the Secretary of Defense to declassify certain classified documents regarding military exposures to toxic releases. Specifically,

The Secretary of Defense shall declassify documents related to any known incident in which not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance.

Of course, there are limitations:

(b) Limitation.–The declassification required by subsection (a) shall be limited to information necessary for an individual who was potentially exposed to a toxic
substance to determine the following:
(1) Whether that individual was exposed to that toxic substance.
(2) The potential severity of the exposure of that individual to that toxic substance.
(3) Any potential health conditions that may have resulted from exposure to that toxic substance.

and a critical exception:

(c) Exception.–The Secretary of Defense is not required to declassify documents under subsection (a) if the Secretary determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States.

This exception appears potentially quite broad, but as Steve Aftergood pointed out in Secrecy News

That is a far more stringent standard than is provided by the executive order on classification, which vaguely permits withholding of information whenever it “could be expected to cause damage to the national security.”

In effect, the Senate bill overrides the executive order with respect to the specified documents on toxic exposures by mandating declassification with new, narrower criteria for withholding.

He further noted that the provision is noteworthy

because it does not simply declare a “sense of Congress” in favor of declassification or call for a “review” of classified records. It actually requires declassification to be performed.

As Aftergood points out, it shows that Congress has the power to help to correct errors and abuses in classification policy.

The provision was authored by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). In a news release, Sen. Moran stated,

Without declassification of these documents, many of our veterans are left without proof of the exposure they suffered, preventing them from being able to establish their service-connected conditions and secure a disability rating that makes them eligible to receive the care and benefits they deserve to help them cope with the residual health damage.

This could, of course, also be said about other situations and actions taken by the US government, such as the previous torture of some of the detainees at Gitmo — which prevents their cases from moving forward in the military commissions.

State Tax Havens: Shell Company Secrecy Enables Harm to the United States

In a September 20, 2017 article in Foreign Affairs, Casey Michel discusses how the United States has become has become one of the most important destinations for offshore ownership vehicles, enabling tax evasion, corruption, and crime and offered the world some of the foremost tools for combating crime and grand corruption. The Department of Justice Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative was formed in 2010 to

“curb high-level public corruption around the world. Led by a team of Department of Justice prosecutors working in tandem with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, its mission is to forfeit the proceeds of corruption by foreign officials and, where appropriate, to use recovered assets to benefit the people who were harmed. Individuals with information about possible proceeds of foreign corruption located in or laundered through the United States should contact federal law enforcement or send an e-mail to kleptocracy@usdoj.gov.”

Casey and Ana Swanson author of an April 2016 post  How the U.S. became one of the world’s biggest tax havens note that, contrary to popular belief, notorious tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Jersey and the Bahamas werre far less permissive in offering them (as researchers) shell companies than states such as—primarily, Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming—but also including Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming  and New York.

A combination of lax requirements at the federal government level and the abuse of federalism at the level of the states has created this dilemma.  Although the federal government has signed on to international agreements committing the United States to disclose company ownership—and even though many other offshore havens require this basic level of transparency—the US federal government does not force registering companies to identify their “beneficial owners” (those who will ultimately benefit from the company’s business or holdings).  Federal officials who do seek such information, moreover, encounter push-back from state-level authorities. For their part, U.S. company service providers—the groups that form “shell companies”* on behalf of anonymous clients—face relatively little pressure to do such identification, certainly not from the states benefiting from the registrations.

Because the negative consequences of their permissiveness mostly land elsewhere—and serve to let kleptocrats plunder their own countries, Michel notes, the states have little reason to introduce stricter rules or to more rigorously enforce those already in place. A 2016 investigation by National Public Radio found that Wyoming had audited only 20 of its 450 company service providers since 2009.

The negative consequences of the secrecy provided by shell companies hit home as well, however.  Anonymous companies represent an important nexus of corruption, money laundering, transnational organized crime, and terrorism, which directly harm U.S. interests. As a recent highly-informative post by Jodi Vittori, on the Council on Foreign Relations site, points out the secrecy enables “terrorists, criminals, and their ilk to use American corporations, real estate, and trusts to finance activities that harm the United States and its foreign interests.”

The effects of the secrecy may get Congress to act: current bills include Corporate Transparency Act (S.1717/H.R. 3089) and the True Incorporation Transparency for Law Enforcement (TITLE) Act (S. 1454).

*Anonymous shell companies are often no more than a title in a corporate registry and a name plate on a door; the actual person or persons who own and control the company—the so-called beneficial owners—are either concealed or not recorded at all. These companies enable the powerful and connected to hide their assets from law enforcement, tax authorities, or other interested parties, frequently by nesting these companies inside a complex web of businesses incorporated in different jurisdictions.

Often, shell companies are established through a corporate service provider—a company that can incorporate on behalf of one or more individuals, a firm, a charity, or some other party. Instead of recording the actual beneficial owners, the company can be registered to someone who rents out his or her identity, known as a nominee. This nominee can be a lawyer, law firm, relative, or other person connected to the real owner, or even another company or trust, which itself may be anonymously owned.1


1 Jodi Vittori, How Anonymous Shell Companies Finance Insurgents, Criminals, and Dictators, Council on Foreign Relations.

Counting (Some of) the Costs of War

The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision—added by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)—requiring the Defense Secretary and Internal Revenue Service Commissioner to post online all of the costs, “including the relevant legacy costs, to each American taxpayer of each of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”  Defense One reports that, by October of next year, the Pentagon’s share of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria will have collectively cost taxpayers more than $1.5 trillion, according to the Defense Department’s figures. As the article notes, though, the figures do not include classified amounts spent on the wars by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

There are, however, other “costs of war” that are not as easily quantified.  A project at Brown University, the Watson Institute Costs of War Project tracks the the Economic costs—under which they include: veterans care and disability; increases in the homeland security budget; interest payments on direct war borrowing; foreign assistance spending; and estimated future obligations for veterans’ care.

The Project also has documented the Human and Social & Political costs. Regrettably, the pages and much of the information on Human and Social & Political costs have not been updated in the past couple of years. These costs are not counted by the Defense Department, and some of the Social & Political costs are classified, such as “major human rights and civil liberties violations, including detention without trial, torture, expanded US government surveillance…”

What Happens When Agencies Don’t — or Won’t — Create Records?

The first important thing to know is the Federal Records Act imposes obligations on agency heads to “make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures and essential transactions of the agency.” Moreover, the federal agencies have an affirmative obligation to retain all recorded information—”regardless of form or characteristics”— that was “made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business” and serves as “evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government….” 44 U.S.C. § 3301 (2012).  A thoroughly-researched memo by the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program details the record retention policies at the Environmental Protection Administration, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Energy.

The New York Times reported1 earlier this month on reports and indications of secrecy at the EPA—including employees sometimes being told not to take notes at meetings.  More troubling for accountability, Administrator Pruitt’s aides recently asked career employees to make major changes in a rule regulating water quality in the United States (Waters of the United States or WOTUS)—without any records of the changes they were being ordered to make.  Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has noted that “That same rule was initially backed up by an analysis of “the economic benefits of preventing water pollution,” but once Mr. Pruitt decided to reverse the rule EPA “‘economists were verbally told to produce a new study that changed the wetlands benefit[.]’”* 

As the above memo notes, EPA’s records policy covers “all records made or received by EPA employees under federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business, and preserved or appropriate for preservation as evidence of EPA functions, organization and activities or because of the value of the information they contain.”2 Records must be retained if they contain information related to how EPA carries out its mission, such as communicating EPA requirements, or documenting the agency’s
decision-making process.

In a letter to the Archivist of the United States, CREW points out that Mr. Pruitt and EPA “are evading public scrutiny of their decisions by failing to create records in the first place.  Not only are these actions bad from a public policy perspective, but also they appear to violate the FRA requirements to both document and preserve records reflecting essential EPA decisions and policies and how they are made.  Adequate documentation is one of the two main pillars of the FRA; EPA’s failure to create this documentation undermines the goals of the FRA and deprives the public of access to records that document how the agency is fulfilling its statutory mission.”

The letter requests that the Archivist exercise his authority and responsibility under the Federal Records Act to evaluate actions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that appear to violate the Federal Records Act, and make recommendations to EPA for their correction and “full compliance with the FRA and inform both the President and Congress of these violations.”

* There is a pattern in this Administration; see White House Blocks Report Showing Societal Benefits of Refugees in the US

1Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, Scott Pruitt is Carrying Out His E.P.A. Agenda in Secret, Critics Say, New York Times, Aug. 11, 2017 ;  EPA Information Policy, Records Management Policy (dated 7/07/2005),  at 1 – from SCELP Memo3  Id at 3.