Tag: government transparency

Transparency and Its Discontents

Remember when you had to wait until the end of the month to see your bank statement?

Last week, on the cusp of failing to pass any annual appropriations bills ahead of the October 1 start of the new fiscal year, congressional leaders came up with a short-term government funding bill (or “continuing resolution”) that would fund the government until November 18th. For whatever reason, that deal (H.R. 2608) wasn’t ready to go before the end of the week, so Congress passed an even shorter-term continuing resolution (H.R. 2017) that funds the government until tomorrow, October 4th.

Every weekend, I hunch over my computer and update key records in the database of WashingtonWatch.com, a government transparency website I run as a non-partisan, non-ideological resource (disclosure: it’s my own, not a Cato project). Then I put a summary of what’s going on into an email like this one (subscribe!) that goes out to 7,000 or so of my closest friends.

Last weekend, the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website, which is one of my resources, was down a good chunk of the time for maintenance. Even after it came up again, some materials such as bill text and committee reports weren’t available. (They had come up by the wee hours this morning.) Maintenance is necessary sometimes, though when the service provider I use for the WashingtonWatch.com email does maintenance, it’s usually for an hour or so in the middle of a weekend night.

But when I went to update the database to reflect last week’s passage of H.R. 2017, I could find no record of its public law number. When a bill becomes a law, it gets a public law number starting with the number of the Congress that passed and then a sequential number, like Public Law No. 112-29. The Government Printing Office’s FDsys system lets you browse public laws. At this writing, it isn’t updated to reflect the passage of new laws last week. When THOMAS came back up, its public laws page also had no data to reflect the passage of that continuing resolution last week (and still doesn’t, also at this writing).

There is barely any news reporting on humdrum details about governing like the passage of a law expending $40 billion in taxpayer funds. (That’s about what H.R. 2017 spends to operate the government four more days, roughly $400 per U.S. family.) Where can you confirm with an official source that this happened?

The winning data resource this week, if by default, is Whitehouse.gov, which has a page dedicated to laws the president has signed. That page says that President Obama signed four new laws on Friday (Sept. 30). When might FDsys or THOMAS reflect this information? It’ll happen soon, and that data will start to propagate out to society.

But I think that’s not soon enough. A couple of days’ delay is a big deal.

If I were to take $400 in cash out of my bank account at an ATM, I could review that transaction from that instant forward on my bank’s website. If I had a concern or even a passing interest, I could just go look. That is an utterly unremarkable service in this day and age.

But it’s remarkable that such a service doesn’t exist in systems that are as important as our bank accounts. When Congress and the president pass a bill to spend $40 billion dollars, the fact of its passage is pretty much undocumented by any official sources until enough Mon-Fri, 9-to-5 work hours have passed.

In my recently published paper, Publication Practices for Transparent Government, I go through the things the government should do to make itself more transparent (thus improving public oversight and producing lots of felicitous outcomes). A practice I cite is “real-time or near-real-time publication.” Why? Because then any of the 300 million Americans who have an interest, real or passing, can see what is happening with their money as it happens, just like they can with their bank holdings. People like me (and many more) can propagate complete and timely information, making it that much more accessible.

When you’re talking about a potential audience of 200 million people and $40 billion in expense (one of the tiniest spending bills—others are much larger), it is not too much to ask to have the data published in real time.

I don’t expect a lot of people to join me at the barricades with pitchforks and torches on this one. Government transparency is an area ruled by implicit demand. People don’t know what they are missing, so they don’t know to suffer a sense of deprivation. I do that for them—all of them. (Heroic, idn’t it?)

Before too long, though, the government’s opacity will be recognized as a contributor to the public’s general—and strong—distaste for all that goes on in Washington, D.C. The idea of spending $400 per U.S. family without documenting every detail of it on the Internet will seem as absurd as waiting until the end of the month to see what happened in your bank account.

Removing Melson Will Not Fix the ATF

The controversy over the ATF’s ill-conceived scheme to “walk” guns across the border with Mexico finally resulted in the removal of one high-ranking official: Acting Director Kenneth Melson. The U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, Todd Jones, will fill the position for now.

A quick review:  ATF supervisors ordered agents to facilitate firearm sales to known or suspected “straw buyers” that intended to move the guns across the border and give them to drug cartels. Gun dealers in the U.S. reported the suspicious transactions to the ATF, expecting to cooperate in apprehending the gunrunners. As it turns out, the suspect buyers had disqualifying conditions that should have shown up in federally mandated instant background checks…but didn’t. The firearms trafficked across the border predictably showed up at crime scenes, including those involved with the murder of a Border Patrol agent, an ICE agent, a Mexican military helicopter shoot-down, and other murders on both sides of the border.

If you’re a private citizen, this sort of thing gets you 30 years in prison. If you’re a whistleblower within ATF, you get terminated. If you’re a supervisor responsible for such a scheme, you get promoted reassigned to ATF headquarters.

This ATF scheme broke numerous firearm laws, possibly the Arms Export Control Act, and facilitated multiple murders. The end result this litany of crimes and persistent ATF and DOJ stonewalling congressional investigations cannot simply be Melson’s removal and replacement with a DOJ official who may also have been complicit in the gun-running scheme.

Meanwhile, the multiple long-gun sale reporting mandate that I wrote about last year, which imposes conditions on gun dealers in border states in violation of federal law, has been implemented by the ATF. This was almost certainly one of the goals of the “gun control for the sake of Mexico” push we’ve seen for over two years, even though the numbers of private arms in cartel hands are far lower than we’ve been told, ATF efforts notwithstanding. ATF headquarters is throwing a party to celebrate the latest round of illegal action.

Melson’s departure is certainly warranted, but we’re a few indictments and many terminations short of justice, in my mind.

The War on Cameras Continues

High drama in Miami. Carlos Miller provides a good summary (H/T Radley):

Miami Beach police did their best to destroy a citizen video that shows them shooting a man to death in a hail of bullets Memorial Day.

First, police pointed their guns at the man who shot the video, according to a Miami Herald interview with the videographer.

Then they ordered the man and his girlfriend out the car and threw them down to the ground, yelling “you want to be fucking paparazzi?”

Then they snatched the cell phone from his hand and slammed it to the ground before stomping on it. Then they placed the smashed phone in the videographer’s back pocket as he was laying down on the ground.

And finally, they took him to a mobile command center where they snapped his photo and demanded the phone again, then took him to police headquarters where they conducted a recorded interview with him before releasing him.

But what they didn’t know was that Narces Benoit had removed the SIM card and hid it in his mouth, which means the video survived.

Here is the video:

There’s more at the Miami Herald. For more on this trend, check out Reason’s coverage of the war on cameras and this Cato forum with the Maryland prosecutor who tried to prosecute a motorcyclist for recording a state police officer that performed a traffic stop at gunpoint. Cato’s video Cops on Camera discusses the accountability that citizen journalism can bring to law enforcement.

Not the Transparency I Was Hoping For

The Obama administration’s record on open government isn’t so hot, but the State Department expects the utmost in transparency from anyone applying for a passport. Here are the details on a proposed passport application:

The proposed new  Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

This document is only intended for those who do not have a birth certificate, so additional scrutiny is warranted. But compliance with the form is a mixture of the difficult and the impossible. Security clearances generally only require employment and residence information going back seven or ten years, but this form asks for a lifetime accounting of both. Providing details on the circumstances of your birth is asking a lot - but a listing of pre-natal appointments?

To cap it off, the State Department estimates that the average person will only require 45 minutes to compile the information for this form.

Cops and Cameras: Legal and on TV

The controversy over citizens getting arrested for recording on-duty law enforcement officers is prompting legislation. Connecticut has a two-party wiretap law (the audio of a recording is the justification for arrest) and is looking to pass a statute that specifically protects citizen journalism. This is preventive medicine more than anything — Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts have been the chief offenders — but a welcome development nonetheless.

The headset cameras I’ve written about are going to make their reality TV debut on Police POV on the TruTV network. The series will show footage of officers in Cincinnati, Chattanooga, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, all filmed with cameras mounted on the officers. The promotional footage shows at least one SWAT raid, proof positive that if you’re willing to strap on a helmet and 45 pounds of body armor and gear, a couple of extra pounds of camera aren’t a bridge too far, and ought to be required.

While Radley Balko has highlighted some shenanigans with police reality TV shows, creating a new normal where officers not only accept the prospect of being filmed on the job but embrace the technology for evidentiary and liability reasons is a step in the right direction. I make the case for more cameras in law enforcement operations with Radley and Clark Neilly in this video:

The Obama Administration’s FOIA Compliance

Jim Harper has done a lot of work on the Obama administration’s efforts to be more transparent, especially with regard to “sunlight before signing,” earmark data, and FOIA compliance. The Obama administration could do a lot more on the FOIA front.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) recently added a FOIA Project, which lists all FOIA requests that have become the subject of federal litigation since October 1, 2009. This includes an interactive FOIA Map that lets you zoom in and locate lawsuits across the United States.

TRAC has proven an invaluable resource for tracking federal government activities, and has been litigating FOIA requests for years. A recent Supreme Court decision, Milner v. Department of the Navy, reduced the ability of government agencies to withhold data under FOIA exemptions. Undeterred, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official “informed TRAC that those who had requested and been denied access to documents under the FOIA prior to the court’s ground-breaking decision was rendered had no right to obtain them.” More details are available here.

It’s pretty bad when ICE is hiding behind procedural barriers to sidestep FOIA requests; it’s another ballgame entirely at the Department of Homeland Security. DHS officials tried to turn the objective standard of FOIA — disclosure to one is disclosure to all — into a subjective one, looking into the political beliefs of the requester to avoid embarrassment for DHS. An email trail shows how a former Obama staffer asked DHS employees to redact “politically sensitive” details from FOIA releases. Obama officials defended DHS’s FOIA policy in congressional hearings, and a DHS attorney tried to remove exhibits from the hearings. His explanation:

“As counsel for DHS, I object to counsel for the committee’s refusal to allow exhibits they had shown to the witness and that all are e-mail messages from DHS personnel to DHS personnel on their official DHS-issued accounts and use of e-mail services. These are not committee records, these are, rather, DHS records; and so there is no reason the committee should be able to prevent us from taking them, since they have shown them to the witness and used them in this interview.”

The Obama administration declared that it would be “the most open and transparent in history.” It is falling well short of the mark.

Cop-Cams on the Rise

The police in Austin, Texas will be testing nine different body-mounted cameras over the next 30 to 60 days. This is a positive development for both officers and citizens. It’s good legal defense for officers against false claims of excessive force and a training tool to show trainees best practices. It’s good incentive for officers to act within the bounds of the law. Video also makes for solid evidence in court. Many jurisdictions require law enforcement officers to record confessions and/or interrogations. Steve Chapman argued last year that the FBI should adopt such a policy.

Recording should be mandatory in SWAT raids, the most intense law enforcement encounters. I make the case for recording SWAT operations with Radley Balko and Clark Neily in this video: