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Steven Aftergood over at Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News project writes today that President Trump recently commented off-handedly that reports from the Department of Defense’ Inspector General should be private and not publicly accessible. It’s unclear if this off-the-cuff comment will lead to less public access to these important reports, but Aftergood notes that “secrecy in the Department of Defense has increased noticeably in the Trump Administration” but that the Pentagon still publishes a massive amount of information. What is clear is that this one small comment could have huge implications going forward from “For Official Use Only” markings to restrict access to information to perhaps an erosion of the FOIA process. This is certainly something to keep an eye on.
The recurring dispute over the appropriate degree of secrecy in the Department of Defense arose in a new form last week when President Trump said that certain audits and investigations that are performed by the DoD Inspector General should no longer be made public.
“We’re fighting wars, and they’re doing reports and releasing it to the public? Now, the public means the enemy,” the President said at a January 2 cabinet meeting. “The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports. Let him do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up.”
It is not clear what the President had in mind. Did he have reason to think that US military operations had been damaged by publication of Inspector General reports? Was he now directing the Secretary of Defense to classify such reports, regardless of their specific contents? Was he suggesting the need for a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to prevent their disclosure?
Or was this simply an expression of presidential pique with no practical consequence? Thus far, there has been no sign of any change to DoD publication policy in response to the President’s remarks.
A friend reminded me today about this story from 2016 which was a Finalist for 2016 Golden Padlock award given each year by the group Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) “celebrating” the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States. that year, there were some real doozies. But I think the winner hands down was the US Department of Defense charging a $660 million fee to fulfill a FOIA request because the request would require 15 million labor hours (more than 1,712 years for one person)! MuckRock has the rest of the story.
There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s break it down, bottom to top.
- The $660 million fee estimate is nearly 500 times our previous record, and will likely hold that dubious title for quite some time.
- 15 million labor hours breaks down into 625,000 days, or a little over 1,712 years. So assuming one DoD employee started working on this nonstop tomorrow, they’d finish somewhere in the summer of 3728. To put that in perspective, if they started on year zero, by the time they were done, they’d only have to wait 20 years to hand off the work to an infant George Washington for safekeeping.
- Finally, the idea that DoD can’t search their digitized contracts – therefore creating the need for the labor and associated cost – is problematic for a couple reasons. First, here at MuckRock, we know a thing or two about scans of paper copies, and running those through even a rudimentary OCR is pretty simple. The fact that they’re allegedly not doing that somewhat defeats the purpose of digitized archives. Second, there’s got to be a better way to preform this search than a brute force look through all their contracts.
This is the kind of news that makes the public distrust government (in this case rightly, but just as frequently that distrust is misplaced). It’s also the kind of news item that I like because there’s context AND there’s a copy of the internal study that I can archive, catalog and give access to via our library catalog.
The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.
Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.
The report, issued in January 2015, identified “a clear path” for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.
The study was produced last year by the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company. Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.
I’ve seen bits of Errol Morris’ new documentary [[The Unknown Known]] on the career of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This is an important piece for our understanding of US’ recent history and a stark reminder about the adage that “1 person making a difference” can actually cut both ways.
Errol Morris, Oscar-winning filmmaker talks with Rachel Maddow about his new documentary “The Unknown Known,” examining Donald Rumsfeld’s perspective on the war in Iraq, and the rewriting of history by former Bush staffers.
According to a recent GCN article “DOD wants you … to browse its visual library” the US Department of Defense has entered into a “no cost” contract with a company called T3 Media to have them digitize DoD’s massive image and video archive. It seems that DoD employees will get free access to the digital archive, but T3 Media will receive a 10 year monopoly license to charge for public access to the archive.
This is not the first time that a federal agency has entered into “no cost” contracts to privatize its public domain information. A few years ago, GAO contracted w Thomson/West to digitize GAO’s archive of legislative histories of public laws 1915 – 1995. When will federal agencies realize that giving away the whole store does them and the public a HUGE disservice?!
According to Rick Prelinger who alerted us to the GCN article:
In exchange for covering a share of digitizing and hosting costs (the government will pick up an unspecified share of costs as well), T3 Media will provide access to the government and receive a 10-year exclusive license to charge for public access to these public domain materials.
I contacted T3Media’s communications manager who could only tell me that “the material will be available for licensing.” Costs, procedures and restrictions are still undecided or undisclosed. T3 will possess the highest-quality digital copies of these materials and there is no guarantee that DoD will offer them to the public online when the 10-year window expires. It’s therefore hard to know whether this contract will serve the public interest.