Tag Archives: Transparency in Government

Greatest Number of FOIA Requests In Record-Setting FY 2018 Came From Individual Citizens

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“FEDERAL NEWS NETWORK

Journalists are now the second-most common requesters of government records; the majority are now people seeking information on themselves.

Federal FOIA offices have struggled to cope with stagnant staffing levels in the face of growing workloads.

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” The Justice Department’s prophecy that fiscal 2018 would be a record year for Freedom of Information Act requests came true. But as the number of requests continues to rise, the make-up of people submitting most of them has shifted.

In FY 2018 federal agencies received 5.6% more requests, or an increase of 45,458, than in FY 2017, for a total of 863,729 requests. Collectively, agencies also processed 0.85% more requests, or 830,060 total, in FY 2018 versus the previous year, according to DOJ’s annual report released Thursday.

FY 2018 was the third consecutive year-over-year increase in the number of requests received, and the second consecutive YOY rise in processed requests. Five organizations lead the pack, accounting for more than 70% of all FOIA requests received and processed: the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defense and Agriculture, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

FOIA, graph, 2018

Altogether, DOJ counted a 93.8% release rate of information for FY 2018. Of those 830,060 processed requests, more than 70% were closed after being substantially processed. According to the release, 38.9% of them were at least partially granted, 26.9% were fully granted, 14.8% were closed due to a lack of records and 4.3% were fully denied based on FOIA exemptions.

The most commonly cited exemptions were Exemptions 6 and 7C, which both have to do with personal privacy interests. These range from personnel and medical files — Exemption 6 — to information for law enforcement purposes that when disclosed “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” — Exemption 7C.

The report concluded by saying that despite the increase in request processing, agencies have room for improvement. DOJ recommended agencies continue to target the 20-working-day deadline to respond to simple FOIA requests and close their 10 oldest pending requests and consultations.

FOIA, backlog, graph

But the rise in processing wasn’t enough to stop the federal FOIA backlog from growing as well. The backlog for FY 2018 was 130,718 requests, up from the previous three years but still not as high as in 2014, which saw 159,741 backlogged requests governmentwide.

DOJ’s report said seven agencies were responsible for roughly 82% of that inventory: DHS, DOJ, and the departments of State, Health and Human Services; Veterans Affairs and Interior. One bright spot was that the time to process simple requests hastened, from 27.96 days in FY 2017 to 25.52 days in FY 2018.

Rise of first-person requesters

Aside from the sheer number of requests, agencies’ FOIA offices face another growing problem. While FOIA laws were designed with news organizations and journalists in mind, for the purposes of government accountability, these groups are no longer the most common requesters.

Margaret Kwoka, an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, presented research to the NARA FOIA Advisory Committee on Thursday, that individual requesters are turning to FOIA “by the hundreds of thousands” for their own records on matters such as their own immigration documents, medical and family histories. They also submit FOIA requests to obtain information needed to receive benefits, such as from the Veterans Health Administration.

The Social Security Administration has also seen several requests from people doing genealogy research, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mostly gets requests for charge files, she said. Her findings mainly focused on DHS, VA, SSA and the EEOC.

Kwoka said the mismatch between FOIA’s design and need means that people are denied their due process, agencies become less efficient and public trust in those agencies is undermined.

“FOIA may be serving extremely important interests in these regards, but I think research shows that it’s serving these interests poorly” she said of the impact on due process, particularly when it comes to attorneys trying to obtain documents for discovery. “In essence, sometimes the information simply doesn’t come in time to be useful to the client’s case.”

She described moving certain information requests out of FOIA offices, like is done at the IRS, and putting more medical records online as a couple ways to cut down the backlog.

FOIA office staff numbers still low

Federal FOIA offices have struggled to cope with stagnant staffing levels in the face of growing workloads.

As of October, agencies only had about 4,500 FOIA officers to handle requests and a NARA study presented in March estimated about 188 requests for every FOIA officer.

During Thursday’s committee meeting, Jason Baron, an attorney with Drinker Biddle & Reath and expert in the preservation of electronic documents, said that across the board agencies are engaging in “tremendous” amounts of FOIA training, particularly at DHS.

However, he also warned agencies still have a long way to go when it comes to digital records management, particularly emails. He said he hoped the committee could foster dialogue with FOIA officers about what tools and technologies exist in the marketplace to tackle this transition.

“They may not have experienced the need yet for searching across millions of emails for the typical FOIA request — that’s not the typical FOIA request that an agency receives — but the future is coming,” he said.”

DOD Audit Uncovers Millions Of Dollars In Unaccounted-For Spare Parts

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“FEDERAL NEWS NETWORK”

“The Defense Department is just starting its second year of full-scale financial audits, and it’s likely to take many more before those efforts yield a clean opinion.

In the first year of the full-scope examination, auditors issued more than 170 separate findings and recommendations detailing the military services shortcomings in tracking their small-item inventory and real estate. “

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“But the process is already having at least one beneficial effect: It’s pushed the military services to account for tens of millions of dollars in government property they’d lost track of.

David Norquist, DoD’s CFO and comptroller, said progress along those lines has already delivered concrete proof for why the audit is not merely a paperwork drill.

“We discovered there are certain facilities where what they thought they had in inventory did not match what they had in inventory. And if your responsibility is spare parts for airplanes, the accuracy of that inventory matters,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

One example was how, at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, a stockpile of missile motors was erroneously listed as unserviceable even though they were in perfectly good condition. Putting them back into circulation instead of ordering new ones saved the Air Force $53 million.

“In other places, if you go to Osan and Kadena [air bases in Japan], they had 14,000 munitions worth $2.2 billion, and 100 percent were accounted for — not a single exception,” Norquist said. “What we’ve learned is there are some places that are doing this quite well, and there are others where we need to help them fix their processes, but the commanders in the field recognize the direct connection to mission and readiness. They saw the tangible value, and I think as we move forward, the accuracy of the data and adopting more businesslike practices will be tremendously helpful.”

Facilities ‘no one knew existed’

Instances of bad or missing data about entire warehouses worth of parts came up more than once during the course of the 2019 audit.

Thomas Modly, the undersecretary of the Navy, said the Navy found something similar when its auditors began examining a facility in San Diego.

“When we went out and actually started counting inventory and understanding where our stuff was, they found a warehouse that no one knew existed, and it had $26 million worth of parts for the E-2 and the F-18,” he said. “It was not categorized. It did not sit on any inventory system that we had in the whole Department of the Navy. Once that was identified, we were able to requisition $19 million worth of parts to aircraft that were waiting for them and were down because we didn’t even know we had those parts. This is a serious problem for us that we really have to get after, because at the end of the day, it impacts our ability to perform the mission, and our costs.”

The DoD Inspector General reported similar issues in its summary of the 2019 audit findings. More than 100 Blackhawk helicopter blades that were listed as available for use, but that were actually damaged. Fuel injectors stored in warehouses with no documentation to show which military service owned them. Entire facilities that had been demolished years ago, but are still listed as active on the military’s property books.

The IG reported 20 overall material weaknesses after the first audit, and then refined the list down to six that auditors thought were most concerning. Two of the six had to do with property — one encompassed spare parts and other inventory, while the other dealt with bigger-ticket items like real estate.

“We’ve gone out and said, ‘Give us a list of a certain asset and how many you have and where they’re located.’ And when we go, we either find that they have more than they thought, or the ones on their lists don’t exist,” said Carmen Malone, the deputy assistant inspector general for audit. “If you have something in your inventory records that actually can’t be used, you’re not going to order something, because you think you already have it. From an inventory standpoint, that is a big deal.”

Malone said one of the reasons the IG considers the property issue so serious is that it has a direct bearing on military readiness.

“It’s not just from a financial statement standpoint,” she said. “We are out talking to the everyday operating people and making sure that they understand that what they do impacts not just the financial statements. This information will be used as a central location for decision makers across the department from a readiness and logistics standpoint as well. If the information is accurate for financial statements, it’s going to be accurate for the decision makers, which ultimately affects the operations and readiness of the department.”

At last week’s hearing, Norquist declined to predict when the department will finally earn a clean opinion on its full financial statement, but he said he expected that either the Army or the Marine Corps would pass an audit of a small portion of their individual statements — namely,  their working capital funds — within the “next couple years.”

But Modly said his department has major, systemic challenges it still needs to solve with its accounting systems before audit passage is a reasonable probability — at least on an ongoing, repeatable basis.

“We have nine current general ledger systems. They’re not connected, and they create all kinds of disparities in our ability to truly understand our financial information,” he said. “We have business systems that are even more complicated that require interfaces that cause breaks in data security. Because of all those problems, we’re doing a lot of estimating, a lot of hand-jamming of information that most modern industrial corporations never have to do. Most modern industrial corporations can push a button and generate a financial report. We are not even close to that, and we have to get better.”

https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-reporters-notebook-jared-serbu/2019/03/dod-audit-uncovers-tens-of-millions-of-dollars-in-unaccounted-for-spare-parts/

FOIA ‘Imbalance’ between Agency Staff And Number Of Cases

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“FEDERAL NEWS NETWORK”

“A study featured Wednesday at a meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee at the National Archives and Records Administration shows that for every FOIA officer, there are about 188 FOIA requests.

“That ratio between workforce and workload, said Tina Nabatchi, an associate professor for public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, appears difficult to manage.”

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“The government received yet another record-breaking volume of Freedom of Information Act requests last year, but a handful of agencies, year after year, continue to receive the majority of those requests.

“There really still appears to be this imbalance in the total number of full-time staff and the number of cases,” Nabatchi said, one of the authors of a report published last year on trends in FOIA administration.

The study analyzes aggregate FOIA.gov data from 102 agencies between 2008 and 2016.

Bradley White, a FOIA officer for DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), said that staff-to-request ratio seemed lower than what he’s experienced.

White previously worked for seven years at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s FOIA office. During that time, he said each agency analyst had a weekly quota of processing 35-to-50 FOIA requests a week.

“That ratio probably fluctuates tremendously depending on where you are,” Nabatchi said.

Khaldoun AbouAssi, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at American University, and the study’s second author, noted that even the most well-staffed agencies struggle with FOIA backlogs.

“We’re seeing that the more staff or the more employees, the higher the number of the FOIA backlog,” AbouAssi said, adding the results of the study would require future investigation.

Over time, the cost of processing FOIA requests has also increased. In 2016, agencies spent nearly half a billion dollars processing FOIA requests. However, Nabatchi added that collected fees for FOIA covered less than 1 percent of total costs.

In 2016, agencies spent nearly half a billion dollars processing FOIA requests. (Source: Syracuse University’s Tina Nabatchi and American University’s Khaldoun AbouAssi)

Between 2008 and 2016, six agencies consistently received more requests than any other agency:

  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Justice Department
  • Defense Department
  • Health and Human Services
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Social Security Administration

Agencies that receive the most FOIA requests, Nabatchi noted, fall into one of two buckets: agencies that process individual benefits for claims, or agencies with a law enforcement or national security mission.

Five of those agencies — VA, HHS, DOJ, DHS and DoD — and the Agriculture Department employ more than 65 percent of governmentwide FOIA staff, Nabatchi said.

However, Emily Creighton, the deputy legal director at the American Immigration Council, and a member of the governmentwide FOIA Advisory Committee, said a “large number” of FOIA requests at DHS come from people submitting individual files requests to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services for their immigration records.

“That really just has to do with just how the immigration system works, and that’s how they access their data. That is the only way that they can access their records,” Creighton said.

Nabatchi said she and AbouAssi debated whether to break out the FOIA data on agency components, but ultimately chose not to.

“Do we look at the agency as a whole … or do we start looking at the units within the agencies, because there’s going to be variation within those units as well,” she said.

Empowering an ‘overlooked’ FOIA workforce

Alina Semo, the director of the Office of Government Information Services at NARA, said in an interview last week that professionals are often “overlooked” and not given the credit as they deserve fulfilling a difficult but important job.

“They’ve got to go knocking on doors at their agencies and ask people to open up their file cabinets and give them documents,” Semo said. “Most folks at agencies are not happy to see them: ‘Please leave me alone. I’m trying to fulfill the mission of the agency. I don’t have time to answer a FOIA request.’”

In 2012, the Office of Personnel Management introduced a government information job series aimed at giving FOIA professionals more of a career path. Since then, Semo said she’s generally seen a more positive attitude among FOIA professionals, but added that the future of the workforce remains a concern.

“I worry about the fact that we’re not going to have another wave of FOIA professionals that will come behind the ones that are going to retire in 10, 15, 20 years,” she said.

Earlier this month, OGIS, in its annual report to Congress, recommended that lawmakers pass legislation that would give agencies “sufficient resources” to respond to FOIA requests and comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

The FOIA Improvement Act, which Congress passed in 2016, requires agencies to post documents online after they’ve been requested three or more times. But one of the major bottlenecks of that law is the time it takes to code released documents to make them accessible to online users with physical disabilities.

In many cases, FOIA officials end up doing the Section 508 coding, but that takes time away from processing more FOIA requests.

“What we hear from agencies is that the IT shops don’t necessarily want to help because they have their own to-do lists that don’t include making documents Section 508 accessible, and usually it falls back to the FOIA professionals to do it,” Semo said.

As part of its request to Congress, OGIS has suggested reaching out to the General Services Administration’s 18F agency to streamline and simplify the process of making documents 508 compliant.

Likewise, OGIS said the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research could help automate Section 508 processing.

A third, but less likely scenario, Semo said, would have agencies proactively post an “index” of records released under FOIA.

“Someone with disabilities could look at the index, which itself would be 508 compliant, and then contact the agency and say, ‘I would like to see documents five, seven and nine,” Semo explained. “At that point, the agency would then go ahead and make the documents five, seven and nine 508 compliant.”

https://federalnewsnetwork.com/workforce/2019/03/foia-study-indicates-imbalance-between-agency-staff-and-number-of-cases/

The Pentagon’s National Military Strategy Is Done But Will The Public Ever See It?

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Image: “Open the Government.org” https://www.openthegovernment.org/

“DEFENSE NEWS”

“The 2018 National Military Strategy approved in December and submitted to the secretary of defense and Congress in accordance with statutory requirements but currently [there are] no plans to roll out an [unclassified] public version of the document.

Traditionally, the National Military Strategy, published at different intervals since the late 1990s, has come in an open format.”

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“The 2018 National Military Strategy was approved by Gen. Dunford in December and submitted to the secretary of defense and Congress in accordance with statutory requirements,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Dunford’s spokesman, in response to a question from Defense News.

“The strategy is classified to enable the chairman to fully assess the joint force operating environment and provide unfettered military advice in support of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” Ryder continued. “An unclassified version is not currently available.”

The National Military Strategy is perhaps best thought of as the operational version of the National Defense Strategy outlining how the military will execute the goals laid out in that document, which was released in January 2018. Ryder described the NMS as the “strategic framework to inform the prioritization of force employment, force development and force design for the joint force. The NMS explains how the joint force will maintain its military advantage now and in the future to implement the defense strategy as articulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.”

Traditionally, the National Military Strategy, published at different intervals since the late 1990s, has come in an open format, including as recently as the 2011 and 2015 editions. However, in 2016, Dunford said that it was his belief the document should be more heavily classified than it previously had been.

While there currently is not an unclassified version, Ryder did not rule that out as a future possibility — and keeping the document fully classified would go against Dunford’s own comments made in the last year.

Last January, the chairman said “We’ll come out certainly with an unclassified description of it, so that we’re transparent — as we were last time.” And during a speech last July, Dunford told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “it’s an unclassified document that has historically been written for the public. And we will certainly articulate to the public the guts of a National Military Strategy.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon and National Security Council staffer now with the Center for a New American Security, questions how much benefit the National Military Strategy brings given the recent publication of the National Defense Strategy — let alone the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review documents published in the last year.

“The NMS could be a useful process, but in the past it’s just been a way to insert confusion and to overstress the civ-mil tensions in the department without resulting in distinct military priorities to execute the strategy,” she said.

Still, while saying it is “wise” for the Joint Staff to keep the bulk of the document classified in order to avoid worrying about public perception of their work, Schulman warned that keeping the document entirely behind walls could backfire.

Doing so would be part of “an unfortunate, and frankly undemocratic, tendency by this administration to withhold basic defense information from the general public,” she said.

“DoD believes that intensified ‘opsec’ and overall discretion is a virtue and a return to the days of the Cold War. This is a total misread of that period. It is also going to do more harm than good when they need the support of Congress and the American people,” Schulman added.

What to expect

Thematically, the NMS is expected to follow the broad layout from the National Defense strategy which prioritized dealing with the so-called “2+3” challenges to America – China and Russia as the primaries, followed by North Korea, Iran and violent extremism.

Structurally, Dunford described four key focus areas for the NMS over the summer: providing best military advice, strategy development, supporting the secretary of defense and making sure that the joint staff provides the integrating functions for war plans.

“In my mind, what the national military strategy ought to do is drive the development of our operation plans and, more importantly, drive the development of viable options that we would need in a crisis or contingency,” Dunford said.

He also emphasized that this document is being formulated at the highest levels of the Joint Staff, saying “this is not a document being written by the staff and then subsequently sent out for comment. We sit in. We’re framing the problem. We’re providing top-down guidance on each of these problem sets and then pulling that together.”

Although reluctant to get into details, Dunford did hint that part of the NMS is focused on more effective ways to use intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

“We can’t buy more Predators. We can’t have more CAPs and think that we’re getting out of the problem,” the chairman said. “So if you talk about an area where something disruptive is necessary, something innovative is necessary, it’s what information do we need to make decisions and how do we get that information is the question we’re trying to solve, not how can we afford to buy more CAPs.”

https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/02/13/the-pentagons-national-military-strategy-is-done-and-its-unclear-if-the-public-will-ever-see-it/

Evidence-Based Policy Law Sets Stage For Upcoming Federal Data Strategy

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Image: Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making

“FEDERAL NEWS NETWORK”

“The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. also contains the OPEN Government Data Act, which requires all non-sensitive government data to be made available in open and machine-readable formats by default.

The bill package stems from more than 20 recommendations the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking made in its September 2017 report.”

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“Katharine Abraham, a former chairwoman of the commission and a current co-chair of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative, said the new law takes some “very important first steps” to putting the commission recommendations into practice.

“What it’s really about is outlining some core expectations for activities that should be a routine part of what the government does in managing its policies and programs,” Abraham said in a Jan. 16 conference call organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The new law requires agencies to appoint a chief evaluation officer, whose job will involve asking key questions about the effectiveness of agency programs, and finding ways to measure their effectiveness.

“Those are folks that collectively will provide leadership for managing data, and then making data useful and used to inform policy,” Nick Hart, the director of BPC’s Evidence Project, said in a Jan. 15 interview.

Agencies will also have to appoint chief data officers to oversee their inventory of data and determine how best to share that data out to the public. A handful of agencies — including the Defense Department, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — already have chief data officers.

Robert Shea, a commission member and former Office of Management and Budget executive under the George W. Bush administration, said some agencies may have to make some new hires to get a chief data officer with skills required under the law.

“I think some agencies are pretty mature in this regard, and have good, skilled and effective leaders in place, in a position like that. Others are a little bit further behind and will need to look outside to get that capability in-house,” Shea said in an interview Friday.

Within the next six months, the Office of Personnel Management must create a new job series for program evaluation officials.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has assembled more than 50 data fellows from various agencies who spend about a quarter of their time developing a federal data strategy.

“Their strategy is going to go a long way toward implementing specific provisions in the law,” Ted McCann, a BPC fellow and former policy adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said during the conference call.

Nancy Potok, the federal chief statistician and one of the co-leads on the federal data strategy, also serves as a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

“I think you’ll see a lot of the principles and recommendations of the commission embedded in that [federal data] strategy,” Shea said. “That is, that government ought to be sharing data to the extent possible, so long as they can do it securely to accelerate and reduce the cost of evaluations of programs.”

OMB expects to release a one-year draft action plan for the data strategy this month.”

Unseen Casualties Of The Federal Government Shutdown

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‘THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT’

The shutdown is exacting a significant toll on programs that help keep the government honest, transparent, and accountable.”

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”  Regardless of which side of the border-wall debate you agree with, it’s important to realize that the government shutdown is a bad thing that gets worse each day it continues. This partial shutdown is already the longest in U.S. history and there are no indications that a solution is imminent. While there have been several shutdowns in the last few years, we should not accept this as the “new normal.” Shutdowns cause far too much damage economically, personally, and institutionally to be taken in stride. Some impacts are obvious and immediate, while others can be subtle and longer-term, but no less important.

There has been a great deal of focus on the impact of the shutdown on the approximately 800,000 federal employees out of work or working without pay, and the loss of government services and programs that many people rely on. That focus is appropriate, as the personal cost to families is staggering as they struggle to pay for their mortgage, groceries, utility bills, tuition, and more. Millions of Americans face hardships as economic ripples from the shutdown expand and more critical government support programs are suspended.

In addition, the shutdown is exacting a significant toll on programs that help keep the government honest, transparent, and accountable. These aspects of the shutdown often get less attention, likely because they seem more removed from the public’s immediate concerns, but in reality these important offices and functions exist to serve the public’s interest.

Inspectors General

Inspectors general are a perfect example. Every federal agency has an Office of Inspector General (OIG), specifically tasked with operating as a watchdog, auditing financials and investigating potential waste, fraud, and abuse. The shutdown has essentially closed several inspector general offices and left others short-staffed despite the importance of their work.

Congress gets progress reports from OIGs every six months to remain aware of the continual accomplishments of these busy offices. A review of the reports covering April 2018 through September 2018 from ten of the shut-down agencies found that, collectively, the OIG offices opened and closed more than 800 investigations, issued more than 669 reports, secured 620 indictments and 507 convictions, and collected more than $411 million in criminal restitution, fines, civil recoveries, and forfeited assets.

Each day that offices like these are shut down or operating with skeleton staffing means another day lost for investigations, fewer wrongdoers caught and convicted, and less money recovered.

Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers are another important element of holding agencies accountable. Despite the best efforts of OIGs and Congress to provide oversight, too often we still have to rely on the conscience of good people to step forward and expose waste, fraud, and abuse. But key offices tasked with following up on these reports and protecting the rights of whistleblowers are also shut down

The Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal investigative agency that protects whistleblowers’ rights, is closed with only 17, or about 13 percent, of the normal 133 staff members working. Complaints can still be filed with the agency, but most will not be addressed until the shutdown ends.

Similarly, the IRS Whistleblower Office has only 6 people working there during the shutdown, which is only about 16 percent of the 38 full-time employees the office noted in its last annual report. The retained staff are only “to provide leadership and oversight of excepted activities including timekeeping and conducting orderly shutdown and recall activities.”

Websites

Beyond the staffing shortages in key offices, government activities that provide transparency and accountability are offline across multiple agencies. Agency websites, a major vehicle keeping the public informed, aren’t being updated. Most agencies have notices posted that appear on every webpage informing visitors that the information may be out of date.

These include critical public information websites like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees the safety of all sorts of consumer products such as cribs, toys, power tools, clothes, and more. The Commission hasn’t posted any new recalls on its website or on SaferProducts.gov, which it also runs, since December 20. Prior to the shutdown, it was posting information on multiple recalls each week, sometimes more than one a day.

The Federal Register website, which is the official daily publication for government rules and notices, is still available but all but devoid of new daily content. The website isn’t being supported but the systems remain available to agencies for notices that are necessary to protect life and property. So even though about 75 percent of federal agencies remain open, the notices and proposed rules have essentially ground to a halt. Prior to the shutdown, the Federal Register often published more than 100 notices, proposed rules, finalized rules and other documents each day. During the shutdown, the site content has dwindled to a handful of notices each day, often fewer than ten.  

Similarly, Regulations.gov, the federal government’s main portal for posting regulatory material and getting public input on proposed rules, has almost no new material being posted. There are two reasons this site has dried up. First, it relies directly on proposed rules in the Federal Register, which have slowed to a trickle. Second, even though the website handles regulations for all agencies, the site is managed under an EPA contract and that agency is shut down. It remains unclear if the Administration will grant extensions for public comment periods open during the shutdown. With the website down and several agencies shut down and unable to respond to inquiries or post additional materials, the public input process is seriously compromised.

Some agency websites aren’t just frozen, but seem to be completely unavailable due to the shutdown. Reports indicate that more than 80 government websites have been rendered “insecure or inaccessible” because of expiring security certificates. The OIG website for the Department of Commerce seems to one of those sites. Some browsers can’t open the homepage and only report that the site isn’t secure. Other browsers pull up the homepage with only a simple message stating “Due to a lapse in government funding, www.OIG.DOC.govand all associated online activities will be unavailable until further notice.”

Freedom of Information Action

Processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests is also suspended at most of the affected agencies. FOIA is another major tool for transparency and accountability. Many agencies receive thousands of FOIA requests each month. The process isn’t fast or even entirely reliable, but every year it facilitates the release of millions of pages of government material.

Several of the shut-down agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and National Archives and Records Administration, use the FOIAOnline portal to manage online requests and provide electronic access to released records. However, the site, which is managed by the EPA, has posted a notice explaining that due to the shutdown “continued systems operations cannot be guaranteed” and “submissions may not be processed in a timely manner.”

The Department of the Interior has taken down its online form to submit a FOIA request and posted a notice telling visitors that “no FOIA requests can be accepted or processed at this time.” The Department of Agriculture similarly has a notice on its FOIA Public Access Linkexplaining that “FOIA requests submitted to the USDA will not be processed until funding has been restored.”

It is troubling that transparency and accountability are on hold across a quarter of the federal government. The government shutdown is the ultimate antithesis of an effective government. The issues raised above are just some of the many reasons the shutdown should end as soon as possible. These concerns also raise important questions about how agencies can catch up on these important responsibilities when the long shutdown is over. Affected agencies would be smart to issue plans on the steps intended to handle the backlogs of investigations, requests, and other work. Congress should seriously consider providing additional resources to the shut-down agencies for these accountability and transparency tasks, as well as for major projects, to help make up for the millions of lost workdays across their programs.”

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2019/01/unseen-casualties-of-the-shutdown-accountability-and-transparency/

21st Century IDEA Act Is Now Law

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“FEDSCOOP”

The legislation will require that public-facing agency websites have a “consistent look” and are compliant with the web standards developed by the General Services Administration.

It requires that the websites are easy to use and accessible to people with disabilities, that federal agencies maintain online and mobile-friendly versions of every in-person or paper-based government process — promoting digital forms and e-signatures. “

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“Citizen-friendly federal websites and digital services just got a boost —  President Donald Trump signed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) on Thursday afternoon.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., in May and quickly completed its Capitol Hill journey in recent weeks. It passed the Houseon Nov. 29, and the Senate on Dec. 11.

“The 21st Century IDEA will modernize the technology of government agencies,” Rep. Khanna said in a statement on the occasion of the legislation’s signing. “It’s time our government agencies adopt the innovative technologies of the 21st Century.”

Proponents of the legislation, of which there are many both inside and outside government, say the act will push federal agencies to deliver the kind of customer service that citizens have come to expect in the private sector.

In keeping with the bill’s overwhelming bipartisan popularity, Khanna had a lot of people to thank. “I want to thank President Trump for signing the bill into law, Sen. Portman and Rep. Ratcliffe for their partnership, as well as Matt Lira from the White House’s Office of American Innovation, and Geo Saba of my staff for their efforts to pass this bill for the American public,” he said.”

Foreign Influence at the Witness Table?

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Foreign Influence at the Witness Table

Illustration by POGO

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (“POGO”)

“A POGO investigation has found numerous loopholes that keep Congress and the public in the dark about the extent of foreign governments’ financial relationships with Congressional witnesses.

Some think tanks had been receiving millions in funding from foreign governments, with little or no disclosure.”


“On any given day, it’s not uncommon to see experts from various Washington, DC, think tanks testify at Congressional hearings. On everything from Middle East policy to nuclear nonproliferation, Congress relies on these experts to provide outside input and help shape future U.S. policy.

The House of Representatives had adopted the rule, which obligates non-governmental Congressional witnesses to disclose foreign funding when it relates to the subject of the hearing at which they’re testifying, after multiple investigations revealed some think tanks had been receiving millions in funding from foreign governments, with little or no disclosure.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) proposed the rule change in response to a 2014 New York Times investigation by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore, which detailed the extent of foreign government donations to prominent DC think tanks. The piece highlighted questions about whether such organizations would be required to disclose those relationships under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law that requires foreign lobbyists and public-relations managers to register with the Department of Justice.

The Times investigation elevated concerns raised in a 2007 Harpers exposé by Ken Silverstein (who is now a journalist in residence at POGO). After the Times story, lawmakers grew increasingly concerned that think tanks might be pushing the perspectives or agendas of their foreign funders without disclosing the relationship.

“While this funding may not distort the testimony of these witnesses, this financial support should be disclosed for Members to appropriately assess potential conflicts,” Representative Speier stated.

All non-governmental witnesses are required to file Truth In Testimony forms disclosing specific information about any U.S. government grants or contracts they have received. The 2015 House rule simply added a requirement that such witnesses also disclose any grants or contracts they or their organization have received in the last two years from a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing. That wording is weaker than Representative Speier intended, as what is related to the hearing can be subjective and compounds the bias problems inherent to self-reporting. Furthermore, the House Rules Committee has issued guidance to some think tanks that if their experts are invited to testify as individuals rather than as representatives of the organization, they do not have to disclose the institution’s funding. This creates a huge loophole in the disclosure requirement. And, aside from the threat of a specific member making a critical statement on the House floor, there is no penalty for those who violate the rule.

The names of some of the biggest DC think tanks are synonymous with independent, fact-based research and writing. However, there is no requirement for think tanks to disclose their funders, foreign or otherwise, to the public, which makes it difficult to know who has a stake in their work.

When these think tanks do disclose their funders, the U.S. government and foreign governments appear as top-tier donors. Those relationships can create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest when the organization is issuing recommendations on foreign policy, underscoring the importance of transparency on funding sources when working to affect U.S. policies.

To determine if the rule works as intended to capture how foreign-government donations to think tanks could color the analysis of Congressional witnesses, POGO reviewed Truth in Testimony forms filed by non-governmental witnesses appearing before three House committees. POGO examined all publicly available forms filed by witnesses appearing before the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees, due to those committees’ focus on international issues as well as U.S. national security.

It is ultimately the responsibility of each committee to ensure that non-governmental witnesses are complying with the rule and disclosing properly. But how think tanks comply with the rule demonstrates that it falls short of truly requiring the disclosure of all potential foreign conflicts of interest.

Ambiguity in Self-Reporting Creates Unintended Loophole

The House rule requires witnesses to disclose “any Federal grants or contracts, or contracts or payments originating with a foreign government, received during the current calendar year or either of the two previous calendar years by the witness or by an entity represented by the witness and related to the subject matter of the hearing.” POGO’s review shows that some expert think-tank witnesses use a very narrow definition of “related.”

For example, in reviewing forms filed by Atlantic Council experts testifying before the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees, POGO found that none included any disclosure of foreign funding related to the subject of the hearing.

There is more to the story, though. In its 2017-2018 annual report, the Council, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan group of foreign policy change-makers,” lists over a dozen foreign governments or foreign-government-owned companies as major donors of $25,000 per year or more. In fact, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) donated at least one million dollars to the Council in 2017, more than any branch of the U.S. government did. A conservative estimate of all of the Atlantic Council’s foreign-government donations for 2017-2018 would be approximately $2,585,000, based on the low end of the stated ranges, but one might not know that by just looking at the organization’s Truth in Testimony forms.

In some instances, that foreign funding could be relevant to a hearing’s subject, even if the country of origin is not directly named. For instance, testimony on “Reforming the National Security Council” or “Defeating Terrorism in Syria” may not directly relate to any of the Council’s numerous foreign donors, but some who give money would have an interest in the outcome. The UAE certainly has an interest in Syria, having been involved in supporting both sides of the Syrian civil war. Further, none of the Truth in Testimony forms filed by Atlantic Council witnesses disclose any federal grants or contracts, even though the organization’s annual report lists six U.S. government offices as major donors, including every military branch.

Testimony from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) demonstrates how the rule does not fully capture instances where foreign donors could have interests in U.S. policies. CSIS describes itself as “a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization dedicated to providing strategic insights and policy solutions to help decisionmakers [sic] chart a course toward a better world.” Part of that mission includes testifying before Congress: CSIS representatives testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs 21 times between 2016 and 2018.

Out of those 21 instances, 14 of the experts reported no funding from foreign governments related to the topic of the hearing. In six instances, witnesses reported relevant funding (one witness form was missing). The disclosure forms vary in the details of the amounts and sources of funding, but they show that Asian countries have invested significantly in CSIS’s work. CSIS did regularly disclose details of its foreign funding, and unlike the forms filed by some other think tanks, it is possible to get a picture of CSIS’s foreign funding from these forms alone. However, the disclosures do not fully comply with the rule because they failed to break out the amounts by country, instead lumping all relevant foreign contributions together.

“We see congressional testimony as an opportunity to help members of Congress think more strategically about the global environment and full transparency is an important part of that process,” a CSIS spokesman told POGO.

In 2016, the organization reported a $43.8 million operating revenue, with 27 percent of that funding coming from “government,” but it’s one of many think tanks that only provide general information on the sources of their funding. The ranges of funding reported are unusually broad, including all donations between $5,000 and $99,999 in one range before jumping to $100,000-$499,999 and finally to $500,000 and above. A conservative estimate of all CSIS’ foreign-government donations for 2017-2018 would be approximately $1,930,000. One 2016 form states that the organization received $1,739,500 from the governments of Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam since 2014.

Many of CSIS’s top-tier government funders are Asian or Middle Eastern countries, including Japan, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Turkey—some of which might have an interest in hearings such as “Iranian Backed Militias: Destabilizing the Middle East,” at which Melissa Dalton, CSIS senior fellow and deputy director of its International Security Program, testified in 2017. Furthermore, several CSIS witnesses participating in other hearings related to Asian countries or issues, like “U.S.-India Relations” or North Korean diplomacy, checked “no” to having received donations from foreign governments related to the subject of the hearing. Though not required to be disclosed under the current House rule, these funders may have an interest in developing certain narratives about those regions.

Some of the hearings CSIS employees testified at were about broad topics like “opportunities in defense reform” or space warfare, which could touch on many different foreign interests but would likely not require disclosure under the House rule.

Other examples introduce further complications. For example, Andrew Shearer, then senior advisor on  Asia-Pacific security at CSIS, testified at a 2017 hearing about “The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges.” His testimony details the Chinese hybrid warfare strategy and China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region. And William A. Carter, CSIS fellow and deputy director its Technology Policy Program, testified in 2018 on “China’s Pursuit of Emerging and Exponential Technologies.” Yet there was no Truth in Testimony form posted for either expert. The CSIS website states that China donates between $5,000 and $99,999 to the organization.

But even if the forms were posted, it’s unclear if the financial relationship would have needed to be disclosed. CSIS told POGO it wasn’t a typical grant or donation. “We do not take Chinese government or Chinese corporate money to do policy research at CSIS. We had one visiting fellow from a Chinese government-associated institution with our China program in 2017, which is why there is a listing that references China on our website,” a CSIS spokesman told POGO. “There is absolutely zero ‘Chinese influence’ over CSIS testimony, events, publications, or programming.” The House Rules Committee should make clear if such an arrangement is covered under the “grants or payments” language in the rule and therefore if this kind of relationship is required to be disclosed.

Letting think tanks decide for themselves if a donor is relevant to the subject of the hearing can allow for an overly narrow interpretation of the rule—a determination that is particularly hard to make when a hearing is globally or regionally focused.

The Personal Capacity Loophole

Some think-tank experts distance themselves from their organization’s foreign donors by saying their testimony and statements represent their personal views and not those of their organization. For example, witnesses associated with the Brookings Institution testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee seven times between 2016 and 2018, and in all but one case the witnesses responded “yes” to having accepted money from foreign governments. All witnesses affiliated with the think tank handled the disclosure in the same way. Each Truth in Testimony form filed by a Brookings witness includes a link to reports that outline Brookings’ donors and a statement reading:

Consistent with the Brookings Institution’s commitment to independence (which includes not taking Institutional positions on issues), I am hereby informing the Committee that my testimony represents my personal views and does not reflect the views of Brookings, its other scholars, employees, officers, and/or trustees[…] Furthermore, out of an abundance of caution, I have affirmatively responded to questions 5 and 6 above [the questions asking if the organization received U.S. or foreign government funding], in the event that some of the donors disclosed above are responsive to these questions.

Although the rule explicitly states that disclosures must include payments received “by the witness or by an entity represented by the witness,” some House committees seem to accept the distinction between individual experts and their parent organizations as a reason not to require disclosures. A Brookings Institution spokeswoman told POGO that the organization developed its disclosure language in consultation with the House Rules Committee when the rule was first enacted.

The donor information Brookings links to in the disclosure form provides some detail but wouldn’t actually satisfy the requirements of the rule if disclosure were required. All of Brookings’ financial disclosures are broken down in ten ranges, starting with “up to $4,999” and culminating in “$2,000,000 and above.” Based on these ranges, a conservative estimate of all of Brookings’ foreign-government donations for the first half of fiscal year 2018 would be approximately $3,750,000.

While the Institution and those witnesses who are affiliated with it view their statements and testimony as separate from the views of Brookings itself, that may not be clear to Members of Congress or the public. The notion that they are separate is particularly at odds with how the witnesses are introduced and given credibility based on their position and work with the Institution. In several instances, Brookings-affiliated witnesses referenced Brookings reports or work in their testimony, and they were almost always introduced with their Brookings titles. In some cases, these hearings were directly related to Brookings’ foreign-government donors, such as Brookings Senior Fellow and Center for the U.S. and Europe Director Dr. Thomas Wright’s testimony at a hearing on Brexit the same year the organization received money from the United Kingdom.

The Brookings Institution is far from the only organization to claim this separation. For instance, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow and Strategist Naz Durakoglu presented testimony at a House Foreign Affairs hearing called “Turkey’s Democracy Under Challenge” in 2017. Durakoglu’s written testimony states that “The Atlantic Council takes no institutional positions on policy issues,” and that the information contained in her testimony represents her views alone. But the Council does have a financial relationship with Turkey. The organization’s last annual report lists Turkey’s Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency as a $25,000-$49,999–tier donor.

“The expert was not aware at [the] time of completing the form of Turkish funding, and worked in a group that was not connected with any funding from Turkey,” an Atlantic Council spokesperson told POGO.

The Rules Committee provided further clarification. A spokesman told POGO that the requirement to disclose or not actually comes down to how the invitation to testify is worded. If the invitation specifically asks for an expert to testify in an individual capacity then they do not need to disclose the funding sources of their parent organization.

Allowing witnesses to testify in an individual capacity, and therefore not disclose potential conflicts, while maintaining the prestige and credibility that comes with being affiliated with an organization like Brookings or the Atlantic Council, is a huge loophole in the rule. The intent of the rule is to provide transparency into any relationships that may color the analysis presented in Congressional testimony. Regardless of the capacity in which an individual is testifying, they should be disclosing the financial relationships of their current employer.

The Brookings Institution told POGO that its foreign donors have no say in what it publishes and it takes a number of steps to prevent potential conflicts of interest. “No single donor is responsible for more than 5% of our funding,” a Brookings spokeswoman told POGO. “Less than 10% of Brookings’s funding comes from foreign governments, and these donations go through the same review process as all other donations of similar value.”

While that may be true, the public and Members of Congress should be able to see those numbers for themselves when Brookings experts are helping to shape policy. Think-tank witnesses are undoubtedly issue-area experts who should be called upon to share their knowledge and help Congress make informed decisions. But the failure to require full disclose of relationships that could in any way influence not only the content of the remarks but the perception of independence in the witnesses themselves, should raise concerns that the rule does not go far enough.

Poor Compliance by Key Committees

In POGO’s review of how the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees enforced the Truth in Testimony disclosure rule, we found that in addition to the problems with the rule itself, compliance with the rule as it currently exists was spotty at best, and some committees did not fully adhere to the rule’s requirements.

POGO found:

  • The House Committee on Foreign Affairs had by far the most non-governmental witnesses. Approximately 10 percent of those witnesses did not file the required form and 77 percent filed the form but said they had not received foreign funding related to the subject of the hearing.
  • The House Committee on Armed Services had the fewest publicly available disclosures. Approximately 77 percent of Armed Services non-governmental witnesses from 2016-2018 did not have any Truth in Testimony forms publicly available at all.
  • The House Committee on Appropriations had the fewest non-governmental witnesses testify during the period. Approximately 26 percent of those witnesses did not file the form as required and only seven witnesses, or four percent, answered yes to the question asking if they received foreign funding. Of those seven witnesses who answered affirmatively, only three disclosed the actual funding details as required.

Particularly of note, the House Armed Services Committee told POGO that it had not posted all the forms it received. The rule specifically requires the forms to “be made publicly available in electronic form not later than one day after the witness appears.” The Armed Services Committee retroactively posted at least three of the disclosure forms after POGO’s request for comment, though a recent staffing change made locating all the missing forms more difficult, a Committee spokesman told POGO.

On the other hand, the Foreign Affairs Committee has strengthened the rule to require further transparency. Its form also asks witnesses to disclose if they are an active registrant under FARA, which requires those representing the interests of foreign governments or political parties to register with the Department of Justice. Although the Justice Department keeps public records of all registrants under the Act, this additional disclosure makes it easier for Committee members and the public to see if witnesses are foreign agents.

POGO only found one Foreign Affairs witness who answered “yes” to being a FARA registrant. Mehmet Yuksel, representing the People’s Democratic Party in Turkey, answered affirmativelywhen he testified on Turkey’s democracy. In 2012, Yuksel registered under FARA for his work promoting information on democracy and human rights in Turkey and Kurdistan.

Recommendations

Non-governmental witnesses are a vital part of the Congressional hearing process and many of those representing or affiliated with think tanks have spent their lives studying and learning the intricacies of their subject matter. Congress should value and utilize their expertise. Furthermore, just because their organizations receive foreign funding does not necessarily mean they are agents of foreign governments sent to infiltrate the U.S. policy making process. Indeed, each think tank mentioned in this piece told POGO that they maintain independence from their foreign donors and have robust conflict-of-interest policies in place.

Still, many of the biggest and most influential think tanks paint a picture of themselves as un-influenced and unbiased ivory towers of information without disclosing much, if any, information about how they maintain multimillion-dollar operating budgets. Most of the time, this lack of specificity in disclosing financial relationships with foreign governments is intentional, and should raise conflict-of-interest concerns when the mission of the organization is to affect policy decisions. There’s no requirement for think tanks or nonprofits to publicly disclose their funding sources, which is why the Truth in Testimony rule is so important. Congress is besieged by special-interest representatives, lobbyists, and “consultants” every day. Understanding who has an interest in the information presented is necessary to making informed decisions.

Require Senate witnesses to file Truth in Testimony forms. Currently the Truth in Testimony rule only applies to nongovernmental witnesses appearing before House Committees. There is no similar rule in the Senate despite the same concerns being present. The Senate should adopt the (ideally updated) House rule to ensure their witnesses disclose any potential conflicts of interests with foreign governments.

Expand the rule to cover all foreign funding, not just that directly related to the subject of the hearing. While the law covers the most direct conflict-of-interest concerns related to foreign governments, it fails to fully capture the world of foreign influence. Many foreign governments, particularly those shelling out millions to think tanks, have vested interests in U.S. posture toward their regions more broadly as well as general U.S. policies on defense, aid, and investment. Non-governmental witnesses should be required to disclose the nature of their relationship with all their foreign donors to prevent even the appearance of a conflict.

Institute a penalty for those who do not comply with the rule. Currently there is not a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure think-tank experts and other non-governmental witnesses are complying with the rule. If a Committee discovers a witness has violated the rule, the expert should be barred from testifying again before Congress.

Eliminate the personal-capacity loophole. Each House committee should enforce the rule to require all non-governmental witnesses to disclose their employer’s financial ties regardless of the capacity in which they are testifying. The purpose of this rule is to ensure transparency in the information Congress is receiving. There should be no loophole around this disclosure.”

https://www.pogo.org/investigation/2018/09/foreign-influence-at-the-witness-table/

The Pentagon’s New Stealth Bookkeeping

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Pentagon Stealth Bookkeeping

THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO)

“The Pentagon (and CIA) have asked the U.S. government’s accounting overlords to let them fudge their costs in the name of national security. The Pentagon Inspector General warns the proposed change represents a “major shift” in federal fiscal management while doing little to “effectively protect classified information.

The change is expected to win final approval from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, and Mick Mulvaney, chief of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), this fall.”


“The Defense Department’s finances have been an unauditable black hole for decades. But as the military has struggled mightily in recent years to remove the cobwebs and fog from its books, it has run into another problem: where to hide its work on classified programs?

Not to fear: where there’s a will, there’s a waiver.

That’s why the Pentagon (and CIA) have asked the U.S. government’s accounting overlords to let them fudge their costs in the name of national security. Think of it as the latest in fiscal transparency: while the U.S. military struggles to make its accounts finally auditable, it needs new nooks and crannies to mask spending. Only U.S. national-security apparatchiks would plead for future budget secrecy to justify past budget sloppiness.

And they have received preliminary approval for the change from the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB), which sets the so-called “generally accepted accounting principles” for federal bean-counters. Government accountants may “modify” spending levels, the accounting agency says, and allow spending “to be excluded from one reporting entity and consolidated into another reporting entity” to keep work on classified programs secret. Government secrecy sleuth Steven Aftergood revealed this latest Pentagon ledger legerdemain in a recent post on his Secrecy News blog for the Federation of American Scientists”

The Pentagon announced last December that it was dispatching 1,200 auditors—that’s about two battalions’ worth—to conduct the first-ever across-the-board audit of the Department of Defense. Conflicting accounting systems and programs—and wars—spread over decades make it challenging to track military spending. But armed with calculators and reinforced by an army of independent public-accounting firms and a nearly $1 billion budget, the Pentagon is due to offer up its most accurate bottom line ever in November.

The push for better bookkeeping leavened with lying wasn’t unanimous. The Pentagon Inspector General warned the change would represent a “major shift” in federal fiscal management while doing little to “effectively protect classified information.” The change “jeopardizes the financial statements’ usefulness and provides financial managers with an arbitrary method of reporting accounting information,” the IG said in its filing opposing the new math. “We do not agree that incorporating summary-level dollar amounts in the overall statements will necessarily result in the release of classified information.”

Outside experts agreed. Gordon Adams, who oversaw national-security spending at OMB during the Clinton Administration, says the change represents a new kind of “duck and cover,” the Cold War exercise where schoolchildren would crawl under their desks to avoid nuclear fallout. “The goal is to duck the need for public reporting by concealing—covering—the numbers somewhere else,” Adams says. “They don’t provide details or examples, probably because that would give the game away, but the goal is to conceal the classified data by hiding it in plain sight in some other number.”

Congressional budget veterans find the proposal unsettling, especially given what they say is the weaker oversight lawmakers now give to national-security spending. “Lots of CIA spending used to be hidden in the Pentagon budget, and it’s still there—but we can’t find it anymore,” says one Capitol Hill budget hawk who has spent decades spelunking military spending. Speaking anonymously, he fears the proposed accounting tweak will give the Pentagon free rein to use its so-called “unsupported adjustments”—known colloquially as “plugged figures”—that have long been used to mask Pentagon spending, dubious and otherwise.

U.S. defense and intelligence agencies have long argued that revealing too much budgetary information can harm national security. They secretly spent more than $50 billion on their “black budget” in 2013, according to a tally intelligence contractor Edward Snowden providedto the Washington Post. But the Pentagon also hides spending on well-publicized programs like its fledgling B-21 bomber. The Air Force fears divulging how much of that sum is going to certain parts of the program—fuselage, engine, radar-eluding “stealth” technologies—could let potential foes beef up their efforts and dull the bomber’s advantage.

“Seventeen years after 9/11 and we still can’t get out from under the `it’s for national security, don’t worry about it’ rubber-stamping of too much data and information that shouldn’t, and otherwise wouldn’t, qualify as needing to be classified,” says Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “The problem with this rubber-stamping is regular folks like us can’t get to the core, or raw, data to better question or shine light on the final decision. We can only pooh-pooh the outcome weakly.”

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2018/08/the-pentagons-new-stealth-bookkeeping

 

 

Congressional Vote to Gut Anti-Corruption Law

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Image:  “Dundee University”

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO)”

“POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said:

“By gutting this anti-corruption rule, lawmakers have showed us they have no guts.

Without the rule, taxpayers will remain the dark, which is where the companies want to keep us. We have no idea right now how much, if any, the industry is paying in taxes. The Cardin-Lugar rule would’ve opened their books to public scrutiny.

The claim that Cardin-Lugar would damage the ability of American companies to be globally competitive was always bogus – as international companies are already subject to similar rules. Rather, it’s about keeping vital information away from the public, lest we find out, for example, that the US government isn’t receiving its fair share of taxes from natural resources extracted from public lands.”

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) emphatically condemns Congress’ vote to eliminate an important anti-corruption measure critical to ensuring American taxpayers can hold the government accountable for its dealings with the oil, gas, and mining industries.

The rule, known as the Cardin-Lugar provision, or Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, required oil, gas, and mining companies listed on US stock exchanges to disclose the royalties and taxes they pay to the US and foreign governments in order to extract natural resources, including those that are publicly owned.  This protected U.S. national security and energy security interests by preventing secrecy and government abuse abroad.

Since the 1990s, POGO’s investigations into the federal government’s oversight of the oil, gas, and mining industries have uncovered widespread corruption and ethics violations that allowed the extractive industries to cheat billions of dollars of potential income from U.S. taxpayers.

The Cardin-Lugar provision is widely supported by investors, citizens, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and governments around the world. It is a key element of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global transparency standard in which the US participates. Companies operating in the European Union (EU) are also required by law to make similar disclosures.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2017/02/pogo-condemns-congressional-vote-gutting_anti-corruption-law.html