Tag: government transparency

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.

Taser Cameras

UPI is reporting that the Taser Corporation is selling cameras that mount on their stun guns.

The cameras automatically turn on when the Taser is removed from its holster and its safety device is released.

“Video is going to help the officer,” said Cmdr. Steve Wilkinson, internal affairs investigator for the West Melbourne (Fla.) Police Department. “And if you don’t record it, the kid down the street with a cellphone is going to use it.”

As I wrote in this post and said in this video and this forum, this is the future of law enforcement. Taser-mounted (or handgun-mounted) cameras can show the circumstances leading up to a use of force and prevent lawsuits where force was justified. The camera’s presence on a weapon, however, can provide officers an incentive to present the taser or handgun sooner rather than later. Departments would be better served with head-mounted cameras, which are also likely to capture more of the events before an officer employs physical force. Expect more of this as these devices become cheaper (and tamper-proof).

Regardless of the form, use of recording technology to provide more transparency and accountability in law enforcement is a good thing.

Sunlight Before Signing—-Pre-Posting Is Not OK

A regular, established practice of posting bills online when they’re sent him by Congress would fulfill President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise, made to roars of applause on the campaign trail. It would allow Americans easy access to the most important part of what Congress and the president do.

But posting bills before Congress passes them, getting a jump on the five days of public review the president promised, seriously undercuts the value of Sunlight Before Signing.

This morning, Whitehouse.gov is displaying on its pending legislation page a link to “H.R. 1586 - To impose an additional tax on bonuses received from certain TARP recipients.” This bill has not been passed by both houses of Congress nor presented to the president.

H.R. 1586 is a “shell bill” that Congress has been batting back and forth, and it has covered various subject matters in its busy life. It indeed started out as a bill to tax the bonuses of executives in TARP-subsidized firms. When it passed the House, though, it had become the “Aviation Safety and Investment Act of 2010.” And this week it was amended in the Senate to contain a potpourri of spending and revenue programs. (WashingtonWatch.com cost estimate: $125 per U.S. family.)

Lets say a high schooler has been assigned by her teacher to monitor the bills President Obama receives from Congress. From the White House’s pending legislation page, she clicks on a link to find a bewildering hodgepodge of bill versions on the Thomas page for the bill. (Click on the image at right to see a screen capture.)

And none of the bill versions has passed Congress! Thomas, the Library of Congress’ legislative tracking service, tells visitors that the last bill listed is most recent. But the current version of the bill is item four of six, referred to as the “XXXXXXAct ofXXXX.” Thanks to Whitehouse.gov, our high schooler is misled into believing that President Obama will soon sign a tax on bonuses given to TARP-slurping executives when in fact a variety of other policies may soon pass.

The promise to post bills online for five days was a simple, common-sense transparency rule. It’s flabbergasting to find that it can’t be carried out in a simple, methodical way to give life to the idea that the people are entitled to oversee the government.

You get a bill from Congress, you post it. You wait five days, you sign it. Promise fulfilled! It’s not rocket science. Pre-posting is not OK.

Collateral Murder, Indeed

I finally found the time to go through the WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Diary entries containing accounts of my 2004 tour in Afghanistan (my third tour; appropriate bio and disclaimer can be found here).

I am underwhelmed. I am not sure what Julian Assange thought the release of these documents would tell people about the war in Afghanistan, beyond the fact that people are shooting at each other and that, generally speaking, war is Hell. If I identified the entries associated with my service in Afghanistan, you would read summaries of the firefights and rocket attacks that my unit faced, with metrics of rounds fired and received and associated casualties.

Parallel to Noah Schachtman’s excellent write-up contrasting his experiences while embedded with Marines in Helmand Province versus what WikiLeaks provides, you would have little visibility on the actual maneuver of troops, the relationship that they have with the populace, and the effectiveness of Afghan forces. Reading WikiLeaks alone would give you a picture of the Afghan War that falls short of what you can get from normal press outlets.

This skewed portrait of our policy comes at no small price. The identification of our intelligence contacts and sources is sure to put their lives in danger, as Steve Coll and (more importantly) Taliban spokesmen point out.

Unfortunately, Assange has taken Afghan War policy as an acceptable loss as well, no matter how you define it. Whether you support a COIN-centric approach, a reduced footprint in Afghanistan, a counterterrorism model, or even letting the CIA run the war, this is a disaster. This release of information is actually more damaging to downsizing strategies, since we will end up leaning on tribal alliances and intelligence assets more, not less.

Assange is facilitating the deaths of our intelligence contacts because he believes that the benefits outweigh the cost of their lives. That’s mighty rich, coming from a guy who labeled a 2007 case of mistaken identity in Iraq that resulted in the death of civilians as “collateral murder.” In that case, helicopter pilots misidentified a reporter’s zoom lens as the tail end of an RPG launcher, but armed men were in the reporters’ entourage that may have independently met the criteria for using force under the rules of engagement.

That’s (possibly) a mistake in the distinction of combatants, not an intentional approval of the loss of innocent life that is deemed acceptable in proportion to the direct military advantage anticipated. The latter is the definition of collateral damage, and Assange seems to have no problem with asserting his moral judgment in this realm.

Collateral murder, indeed.


The Associated Press is reporting that persons filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the Department of Homeland Security during the last year faced scrutiny beyond what the law requires.

Career employees were ordered to provide Secretary Janet Napolitano’s political staff with information about the people who asked for records — such as where they lived, whether they were private citizens or reporters — and about the organizations where they worked.

If a member of Congress sought such documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican.

This, despite President Barack Obama’s statement that federal workers should “act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation” under FOIA, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion: “Unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have no place in the new era of open government.”

The White House separately reviewed FOIA requests to see documents about spending under the $862 billion stimulus law. Read the whole thing.

Cops and Cameras: The Future of Policing

The USA Today editorial board is criticizing the use of state wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens who tape on-duty police officers. I have written on this extensively: here, here, here and here. The editorial joins the Washington Examiner and Washington Post in this critique.

USA Today’s opposing view (presented by two AFL-CIO police union officials) provides this comment:

In today’s environment, police officers have to assume that every action they take is captured on tape, somewhere. They must be comfortable that everything they say or do in the course of their duties may be shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see. Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.

This is often true. The recordings that prompt public outcry are sometimes “gotcha” moments where the camera only captures the use of force with no context.

Here is an example from Maryland that shows officers arresting a woman during the Preakness Stakes. At the end of the video, an officer says to the person recording the arrest: “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

As the USA Today editorial notes, this is a misreading of Maryland law that is kept alive by the prosecution of Anthony Graber and others who record the police. My commentary on the issue is here. As Carlos Miller points out, Maryland prosecutors come to different conclusions about the scope of the state’s wiretap law.

The real problem (besides the fact that the officer is misstating the law to prevent public accountability) is that the officer felt it necessary to stop the filming in the first place. This arrest was justified. The woman bleeding on the floor assaulted another patron, and when two officers responded to the incident, she assaulted them as well. This was a justified and necessary arrest. Whether the level of force was justified is another question, and one that is harder to assess because there is no recording of it.

Here is the solution – officers recording the incidents:

A handful of police departments already have their officers wearing video and audio recording devices. While I said a while ago that gun-mounted cameras are a good tool for police transparency and accountability, this head-mounted camera is a better option. It captures the prelude to the use of force, and doesn’t provide an incentive for the officer to draw his or her weapon sooner to get the event on film.

This is the future of American law enforcement. Departments will embrace this technology because it is a defensive measure against public outcry over the next “gotcha” video filmed with a cell phone and potential lawsuits. Law enforcement agencies will release their own footage of high-publicity events to show that their officers were complying with department guidelines on the use of force. The presence of a camera in an interaction between a cop and a citizen may also serve to keep behavior more civil since both parties know that the world is watching.

In 10 or 15 years, this technology will be ubiquitous just as police cruiser dashboard cameras are now, and law enforcement officers and the public will be better off for it.

Sunlight Before Signing … Clouded

I wrote the other day that it was poor implementation of President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise to post bills for public review before Congress has sent them to the president. (The ideal time to start the Sunlight Before Signing five-day clock is “presentment,” the formal step when Congress sends a bill to the president.)

Today, three bills that have not been presented to the president are posted on Whitehouse.gov as if they are ready for him to sign. (One of them, S. 1508, has been cleared for the president, but not presented. The other two haven’t seen final votes in Congress.)

(Update: Later this morning, a fourth bill was added. H.R. 5502 has been passed by the House and Senate and cleared for the White House, but not presented, according to the Thomas legislative reporting system. It may be that the bill has been presented, but the fact is not yet reported on Thomas. Similarly, H.R. 4173 did have its final vote in Congress yesterday—it was my error to say otherwise—but its presentment is not indicated on Thomas. Based on that, I presume it has not been presented, but I cannot be sure. These facts—ahem—“cloud” this critique of Whitehouse.gov practice.)

They have the notation “In Progress” next to them rather than the date on which they were posted. What that means is lost on me, and I’m a lawyer with years of experience on Capitol Hill and more than a decade in public policy. Where does this leave Joe and Jane Six-Pack?

Transparency is about making public policy accessible to ordinary people so they can oversee their government. This doesn’t help.

Overall, the news remains good. The White House has created an institutional practice of posting bills online for five days before the president signs them, as he promised he would do. Perhaps it’s because we’re coming so close to full implementation of an important transparency promise that it’s disappointing to see this odd detour into posting bills that are not ready for the president’s signature.