Consolidating classified presidential records in DC raises concerns

In Secrecy News, 5 Mar 2018, Steven Aftergood reported on a letter sent out by William J. (Jay) Bosanko, NARA’s COO, announcing NARA’s “intent to consolidate all of the classified records in the Presidential Library system in the Washington, DC area. This follows our previous consolidations of all other classified records that were previously maintained in the field.” Steve asks in the blog—and in a question he put to Mr. Bosanko—whether it really is necessary to physically move the records to DC in order to declassify them? In his email reply, Bosanko noted that the question
“comes back to age-old issues around declassification authority and third-agency referrals.  … And, bringing them here makes it much easier to address long-standing challenges such as certain topics that cut across more than one Administration.”
Given the resistance of the intelligence agencies, in particular the CIA, in letting “their” records be declassified. and a specific history of removing records from NARA—

Washington, D.C., February 21, 2006The CIA and other federal agencies have secretly reclassified over 55,000 pages of records taken from the open shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), according to a report published today on the World Wide Web by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Matthew Aid, author of the report and a visiting fellow at the Archive, discovered this secret program through his wide-ranging research in intelligence, military, and diplomatic records at NARA and found that the CIA and military agencies have reviewed millions of pages at an unknown cost to taxpayers in order to sequester documents from collections that had been open for years.

At issue then, and a possibility now, is that the IC agencies assert ‘equities’ in records not created by them.

An “equity” is information that was originated, classified by, or concerns the activities of another government agency or organization and only they can declassify it. Records that contain other agency “equities” must be referred to those agencies for declassification review.

A referred record becomes declassified upon final declassification action by the referring agency based upon the results of the other agency reviews, or automatically without benefit of additional review if not acted upon by those agencies within a specific time frame and after appropriate referral notification.

President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order 13526 created a National Declassification Center (NDC) at NARA and specifies that ‘If an agency fails to provide a final determination on a referral made by the Center within 1 year of referral, or by the centralized facilities referred to in section 3.7(e) of this order within 3 years of referral, its equities in the referred records shall be automatically declassified.”

It is potentially worrisome that the letter from Mr. Bosanko does not directly address the role to be played by the NDC and its responsibility for reigning in the endless foot-dragging on referrals undertaken by IC agencies.

Dam inspections to be public–in California. DHS still considers dams information SBU and keeps it off-limits

AP today reported that California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation that seeks to beef up dam inspections following a near disaster that caused the evacuation of almost 200,000 people living downstream from the tallest U.S. dam. The measure sets standards for inspections and requires periodic review of dams’ original design and construction records. It also requires inspectors to consult periodically with independent experts and makes inspection reports public.

This site does not ordinarily cover state information policies, but the story brought to mind a FOIA case—from 2003 in the height of the ‘terrorists are going to get your information’ scare(-mongering) from the George W. Bush administration.  The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote1 about in 2004, and I covered it in my 2007 book:

Glen Canyon Dam. In September 2001, a small environmental group filed a FOIA request for the federal government’s projections as to where the waters would go if the dam burst. The Bureau of Reclamation, which creates the “inundation maps” projecting what might happen, denied the request. In March 2003, the federal district court in Salt Lake City upheld2 the denial, ruling that the government could withhold the unclassified maps under an exemption to the FOIA for “law enforcement” records. One component of the law enforcement exemption protects against release of information that might help anyone circumvent the law—and the judge said that terrorists might make use of the information. The ruling included an oblique reference to “a dam failure as [seeking] a ‘weapon of mass destruction.’ ”3

Today’s story from California reminds us how far we have come—at least at the level of that state—but also what is at risk when allegations of potential threats by terrorists to Homeland Security are backed up by the courts and the Justice Department.

To this day, DHS considers information about dam safety to be “sensitive but unclassified”4 and keeps it behind a locked portal:

The HSIN-CS [Homeland Security Information Network-Critical Sectors] Dams Portal, managed by the Dams Sector-Specific Agency (SSA) within the Office of Infrastructure Protection/DHS, provides trusted and vetted public and private sector partners, including owners and operators…

https://www.rcfp.org/sites/default/files/homefront-confidential.pdf

2 Living Rivers, Inc. v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, 272 F. Supp. 2d 1313 (D. Utah 2003).  [March 2003]

U.S. Department of Justice. “Exemption 7f,”Item 14.  https://www.justice.gov/oip/foia-guide-2004-edition-exemption-7f

4 A marking for withholding information that is utilized with widely divergent ‘meanings’ by agencies. While it is (and has been since 2010) targeted for removal as an approved/recognized control designation, regrettably NARA has ceded to the agencies and “Existing agency policy for all sensitive unclassified information remains in effect until your agency implements the CUI program.”

E-mails obtained through FOIA confirm Scott Pruitt’s direct hand in removal of EPA information

According to e-mails obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in response to a  FOIA request, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directly approved the removal of a number of pages about climate change from the EPA website that appears to the public. EDF has posted the released files.

The emails center on a website purge at EPA in April 2017, reported by Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin last summer. Along with pages about climate change and climate science, the purge removed the page about the Clean Power Plan. EDF had previously obtained and posted information about climate change removed from EPA’s website.

 

Government Reorganization in the Dark

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER is suing the Office of Management and Budget for the submissions made by the public in response to an executive order signed by President Trump in March and ensuing guidance from OMB.  According to PEER (as reported by Government Executive) Mick Mulvaney, the OMB director, made a YouTube video inviting  American citizens to weigh in with ideas for “making the federal government more efficient, effective and accountable to the American people.” The video was implemented through a May 15, 2017 Federal Register notice inviting public comment on improvements to the organization and functioning of the Executive Branch.

OMB subsequently set up a website for the public to submit those ideas, with comments due by June 12th. OMB has averred that it had received more than 100,000 submissions and distributed them to relevant agencies. The website is not to be found — although it is a federal record; the link takes one to the bare bones OMB site.1

As Government Executive reported in December, agencies first turned in rough drafts of their plans to OMB in April, which were not made public. Efforts by Government Executive to obtain copies through Freedom of Information Act requests were denied, with the administration citing the deliberative process to prevent their release.

Agencies were required to turn in the final drafts of their reorganization plans in September 2017. Those submissions, according to guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget in April, were required to include both short and long-term plans to cut the size of their workforces. As Government Executive noted in the December article, those plans have remained a secret, with administration officials saying they would only be made public when the White House releases its fiscal 2019 budget.

In a December 19, 2017 letter to OMB Director Mulvaney, Representative Elijah Cummings told the Director that, as he knows,2 the Oversight and Government Reform Committee (on which he is the Ranking Member) has oversight of the federal workforce and therefore of the agency reform plans. Mr. Cummings told Government Executive that such reforms should take place in full view of the public and with proper oversight.

Cummings asked for the documents by January 3; OMB did not respond to an inquiry on whether it would meet Cummings’ request.

A panel of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has held two hearings to examine the reorganization plans. OMB declined to testify at both of those hearings, telling the subcommittee it was too early to offer its thoughts to Congress. Instead, leaders from various agencies gave broad outlines of their goals going into the process. According to Government Executive, federal employee representatives and some lawmakers bemoaned the lack of transparency in the reorganization process, including a failure to include ideas from front-line personnel.

1 If I manage to unearth the site, I will post the information.
2 As a previous Member of Congress, if nothing else.

Seven Words You Cannot Say on…a CDC budget

Those of us of a certain vintage remember George Carlin and “7 Words You Can’t Say On TV“.  Who would have imagined that our federal government would come up with its own list? For all the outrage that Mr. Trump and his supporters express about “political correctness,” i.e., calling people and communities by the names by which they choose to be called, the Washington Post reports that this administration has its own list of, quite literally, politically incorrect words and terms.

The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

On Thursday, 14 December 2017, senior CDC officials who oversee the budget told policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta of the list of forbidden words —that may not be included in any document related to the budget and supporting materials that are to be given to the CDC’s partners and to Congress, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing.

Alison Kelly, a senior leader in the agency’s Office of Financial Services, told the analysts that “certain words” in the CDC’s budget drafts were being sent back to the agency for correction: “vulnerable,” “entitlement” and “diversity.” Kelly told the group the ban on the other words had been conveyed verbally. [Emphasis added]

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

The article by

 

The buying and selling of silence and the cost of secrecy

In an outstanding op-ed on today’s Washington Post, David A. Dana (Kirkland & Ellis professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law) and Susan P. Koniak (professor of law at Boston University School of Law) outline the costs to society of ‘court-sanctioned secrecy and nondisclosure agreements.’ In discussing the current environment, they note

Our courts and our legislators are guilty. Over the past few weeks, we have seen how our legal system has empowered and encouraged sexual predators to continue abusing women through secret settlements and nondisclosure agreements, despite knowing how dangerous silence can be.

Now is different, we’re told. A “cultural moment.” Laws will be reformed. Courts will change their rules. Lawyers, corporations, the American Bar Association and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation will do a 180 and end their hawking of secrecy.

And pigs will fly.

Indeed, although public attention is at this moment focused on an obscure congressional fund used to secretly settle sexual harassment claims against lawmakers with taxpayer money,

Congress is not alone. Some local and state government agencies also use taxpayer funds to secretly settle in cases of police brutality and other serious wrongs, leaving the public in the dark on the facts.

To center the debate solely on secret settlements in government, however, is a mistake. Defective fuel tanks and tires that explode, toxic chemical spills, the Dalkon Shield, leaky breast implants, GM’s faulty ignitions and asbestos-saturated air — each of these examples involves dangers to the public that lawyers and companies have kept hidden through agreements that prevent victims from speaking out.

Most courts in the United States allow vital information to be kept from the public. Only a handful of states have passed legislation limiting secrecy in cases that involve substantial public hazards. And even in those few states with legislation, the “hazards” are generally too narrowly defined, not covering, for example, cases of sexual abuse, harassment or racism in the workplace.

Dana and Koniak additionally focus attention on the question of cui bono—beyond the wrong-doers.

Their commentary is a strong and important addition to the current discussion.

Deregulating Transparency— DOT and the Airlines v. Public


USA Today recently reported that—in the Administration’s effort to reduce regulations and their costs—the Transportation Department has abandoned two proposals from the Obama administration that aimed to provide air travelers with more information about fees on bags and other services before they buy tickets.

According to DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, “The department is committed to protecting consumers from hidden fees and to ensuring transparency. However, we do not believe that departmental action is necessary to meet this objective at this time. … Although we believe there would be benefits of collecting and publishing the proposed aviation data, the department also takes seriously industry concerns about the potential burden of this rule.”

The burdens on industry, that is.  According to USA Today, “most airlines said the costs providing the information would be burdensome and the information wouldn’t increase the transparency of pricing. Airlines also worried that the disclosures could require reporting of propriety information.”

In other words, as in most Republican administrations, asserted burdens outweigh public benefits from transparency and the ability to make informed choices.

Continued resistance to transparency and accountability — DoD’s massive toxic waste responsibility

In it’s most recent update to a disturbing and deeply-researched ongoing report, ProPublica documents the state of toxic pollution left behind by the military across the U.S. This is a problem of massive proportions that is more than three decades in the making — ever since

Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of “open burns,” concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste.

A quarter of a century ago, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that ordered the Department of Defense to halt the practice “as soon as possible.”

As part of this investigation, ProPublica acquired a dataset of all facilities that the Department of Defense considers contaminated—and have used the data to publish an interactive news application called Bombs in Your Backyard that enables the public to find hazardous sites near them — and learn what, if anything, is being done to remedy the pollution.

The “what, if anything, is being done to remedy the pollution” is a telling saga of the Pentagon turning its head to avoid confronting the devastation created by its “open burn” policy and practice.  It merits a close reading. Below are some highlights on the secrecy and lack of accountability aspects.

ProPublica points to federal records identify nearly 200 sites that have been or are still being used to open-burn hazardous explosives across the country. Some blow up aging stockpile bombs in open fields. Others burn bullets, weapons parts and…raw explosives in bonfire-like piles.  While the “facilities operate under special government permits that are supposed to keep the process safe, limiting the release of toxins to levels well below what the government thinks can make people sick,” according to ProPublica, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which governs the process under federal law, acknowledge that the permits provide scant protection.  Indeed, internal EPA records obtained by ProPublica show there are

…at least 51 active sites across the country where the Department of Defense or its contractors are today burning or detonating munitions or raw explosives in the open air, often in close proximity to schools, homes and water supplies. The documents — EPA PowerPoint presentations made to senior agency staff — describe something of a runaway national program, based on “a dirty technology” with “virtually no emissions controls.” According to officials at the agency, the military’s open burn program not only results in extensive contamination, but “staggering” cleanup costs that can reach more than half a billion dollars at a single site.

The sites of open burns — including those operated by private contractors and the Department of Energy — have led to 54 separate federal Superfund declarations and have exposed the people who live near them to dangers that will persist for generations.  …

Of course, the Pentagon could determine with greater accuracy any possible health threat. It could, for instance, actually sample and test the emissions generated by the burns. Aside from a few research sites, neither the EPA nor the Pentagon was able to point to an example where this was done.

It has fallen to non-government researchers, however, to probe the depths of the Defense Department’s indifference to public health and safety:

ProPublica reviewed the open burns and detonations program as part of an unprecedented examination of America’s handling of munitions at sites in the United States, from their manufacture and testing to their disposal. We collected tens of thousands of pages of documents, and interviewed more than 100 state and local officials, lawmakers, military historians, scientists, toxicologists and Pentagon staff. Much of the information gathered has never before been released to the public, leaving the full extent of military-related pollution a secret. …. (Italics added)

“They are not subject to the kind of scrutiny and transparency and disclosure to the public as private sites are,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who until January worked on Department of Defense site cleanup issues as the assistant administrator for land and emergency management at the EPA.

ProPublica’s examination suggests that the Department of Defense has used an array of bureaucratic tools to shorten the list by almost any means legally available ever since Congress directed it to fix its contaminated sites. The agency also has for decades lobbied Congress for legislation that would make the military exempt from the nation’s most significant antipollution laws — the very laws that compel it to clean up old bases in the first place, and has fought to steer the science that determines how some of the most poisonous contaminants are regulated.

It is depressing to note that such DoD resistance to following the law and protecting the health of their employees and their families — and the surrounding public —  is a recurrent theme. In 2011, POGO reported on Toxic Secrecy: The Marine Corps’ Cover-up of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune, and a broad array of non-profit organizations allied to fight a attempt under the auspices of the National Defense Authorization Act (since attempted on a regular basis) to to exempt from disclosure under the FOIA “information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures, and of military rules of engagement.” Just about anything they want to keep secret, in other words.  A coalition letter addressing the latest attempt is here.

 

 

Trump nominates person with no statistical experience to head Bureau of Justice Statistics, further threatening credibility of DOJ information

As reported in The Crime Report, the assault on the credibility of the Bureau of Justice Statistics continues:

President Trump has announced his intention to appoint a director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) who has no apparent experience in the field. … The only statistical experience cited by the White House in Anderson’s background was co-creating the Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings, which boast of computing college football’s “most accurate strength of schedule ratings,” taking into account the quality of teams’ opponents.

The Bureau was established in 1979 “to collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government.”

Until 2012, the BJS directorship required Senate confirmation— when Congress changed the law and made the job a presidential appointment. According to Washington Bureau Chief, Ted Gest:

BJS directors under President Obama, James Lynch of the University of Maryland and William Sabol, now of Georgia State University, both were long-time criminologists and recognized experts in crime and justice statistics.

In May, under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, four former BJS directors wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that “serious consideration” to head BJS, which operates in Sessions’ Department of Justice, “to individuals who have strong leadership, management, and scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products; visibility in the nation’s statistical community; ability to interact productively with Congress and senior DOJ staff; and acceptance of the National Academies’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency.”

The letter was signed by Lynch, Sabol, Jeffrey Sedgwick, who served as BJS director in the last three years of the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Justice Research and Statistics Association, and Lawrence Greenfeld, who headed BJS in the first five years of the Bush administration.

Anderson does not appear to have any of those qualifications.

The same four recent BJS directors wrote in May to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees arguing that the requirement for Senate confirmation for the BJS director should “be restored and that the director’s status be changed from serving at the will of the president to serving a fixed term of at least four years, staggered from the presidential election.”

The ex-directors said in their letter: “It is imperative that policy discussions about the often-contentious issues regarding crime and justice be informed by statistical data trusted by the public to be objective, valid, and reliable…”

“To ensure BJS data are viewed as objective and of highest quality, BJS must be seen as an independent statistical agency wherein data collection, analysis, and dissemination are under the sole control of the BJS.”

 

AG Sessions is a threat — to accountable government through reliable information

In late 2016,  the threat of the impending Trump Administration to access to reliable and accurate government information caused a number of academic libraries, data scientists and others to initiate Data Refuge focused on climate and environmental data. The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), another collaboration, is focused on potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure built to investigate, inform, and enforce them. Its Capacity and Governance working group monitors changes to federal agency governance, budgets, enforcement, scientific research, and rulemaking capacity.i

At the time, openness advocates warned that the utility of government data could be easily undermined by not just being removed (or made difficult to find) but also by changes to the data fields. That warning has now proved true — but not in the areas that are being closely monitored by the above efforts. We have learned that it is not only the new leaders of environmental and energy agencies that are a threat to the accurate information needed to hold government accountable. FiveThirtyEight has documented that AG Sessions is yet another.

In late October, the site reported that “The First FBI Crime Report Issued Under Trump Is Missing A Ton Of Info“:

Every year, the FBI releases a report that is considered the gold standard for tracking crime statistics in the United States: the Crime in the United States report, a collection of crime statistics gathered from over 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in cities around the country. But according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, the 2016 Crime in the United States report — the first released under President Trump’s administration — contains close to 70 percent fewer data tablesI than the 2015 version did, a removal that could affect analysts’ understanding of crime trends in the country. The removal comes after consecutive years in which violent crime rose nationally, and it limits access to high-quality crime data that could help inform solutions.  …

Among the data missing from the 2016 report is information on arrests, the circumstances of homicides (such as the relationships between victims and perpetrators), and the only national estimate of annual gang murders.

While changes to the report typically go through a body called the Advisory Policy Board (APB), responsible for managing and reviewing operational issues for a number of FBI programs, these changes did not. Rather, the FBI Office of Public Affairs — rather than the Advisory Policy Board — determined which data tables to remove  based on a “review the number of times a user actually viewed the tables on the internet.”

So, can a concerned person or organization obtain the removed fields?  According to FiveThirtyEight,

While the UCR says that the data no longer included in the report was available upon request, the FBI only provided a raw data file, which is more difficult to analyze — especially compared to easily accessible data tables — and does not always match the figures posted online in the UCR reports.3

The FBI noted that in addition to its decision to streamline the report, UCR had launched a Crime Data Explorer, which aims to make crime data more user-interactive. But data contained in the explorer does not replicate what is missing from the 2016 UCR report, and it doesn’t allow users to view data for particular years, but rather aggregates trends over a minimum period of 10 years. The National Incident-Based Reporting System is another tool the FBI uses to provide more detailed information on crimes, but it too does not replicate what is missing from the 2016 UCR report and has a substantially lower participation rate4 from police departments across the country.

 

i The End of Term Harvest and subsequent EOT Web Archive also received intense new interest.The Web Archive contains federal government websites (.gov, .mil, etc) in the Legislative, Executive, or Judicial branches of the government — with a focus on websites that were at risk of changing (i.e., whitehouse.gov) or disappearing altogether during government transitions.