When Freedom of Information Requests Are “Criminal,” Only Criminals Will Request Information
Liberals love transparency. Except when they don’t. Which is often, as transparency increasingly inconveniences them. In fact, it is more accurate to say that liberals used to love transparency. Now that transparency threatens their franchise, they’ve had enough of it.
Freedom of information was the liberals’ idea. Today, firmly in control of the institutions that they demanded be open to inspection—government and publicly funded academia—the bloom is off that rose. Openness has outlived its purpose. It needs “reform.” Transparency should still be available, but for the right kind of people. To be on the safe side, it must also acquire new meaning: Publicly funded institutions need privacy, so politically select classes subsisting on your labors should be outright exempted, protected from your scrutiny. It is private citizens and companies who need to be examined more closely, should they involve themselves in the public debate. That is, if they pick the wrong side.
Until the courts or even compliant lawmakers formally turn transparency on its head, the laws are being flaunted and subverted as political needs dictate. Release information if it helps a liberal cause, even when classified and its release places operatives or allies in danger; when exposed in scandals involving taxpayer money, shriek “harassment!” “fishing expedition!” and of course “witch hunt,” and stonewall efforts to scrutinize public records elaborating on the evidence of abuse. Welcome to the new normal of liberal open government.
This Orwellian inversion of the idea of “transparency” is toward avoiding public awareness and informed debate. Apparently those are no longer likely to be of much help to the liberal cause.
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Transparency in American politics, as originally conceived by liberals, was rightly deemed vital to our system of governance. This is because of the threat that sunshine poses to those who might misuse public office or money in the darkness of secrecy. Transparency allows the taxpayer to pull back the curtain on operations of government.
Now that transparency threatens liberals’ use of government and other taxpayer-financed institutions, it is a problem to rein in; we’ve started asking questions and obtaining embarrassing answers, meaning the wrong kind of people are using transparency laws to the wrong ends. Other voices have also entered the political debate. Thanks to transparency and a more engaged public the liberal agenda is being impeded, and passage of laws they disfavor is made more likely. So the threat liberals now see is not misuse of public institutions, including publicly funded universities, a key ally in designing and expanding liberal government. Instead, the threat is exposure of how these institutions are being used, and the ability to spread the word of these abuses far and wide.
This is a cynical revolution, whereby private parties, more than a lack of public institutional accountability, must be protected against. To keep the marketplace of ideas free from competition, public debate must be kept unpolluted by undesirable content and unwanted voices. And so liberals demand that private citizens or businesses reveal all, if they dare support or otherwise engage in political activities standing in the liberals’ way. The left works to obtain private parties’ information with the same zeal and attitude with which they work to keep what belongs to the public secret. This means constructing flimsy arguments that the public is rightly private—hiding and even destroying records—and that the private is rightly public, employing deception, even theft and fabricating records in the name of a greater good. Day is night and black white, and their claim of righteousness justifies all when they are questioned about this perversion of principle.
But this also represents abandonment of a grand liberal achievement: institutionalizing the doctrine that public access to information about public service is “vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”1 That is as articulated by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court more than thirty years ago, although for many years before that liberals championed allowing the public to see what their government was up to. (The first freedom of information law was adopted by liberal heartthrob Sweden in 1766. Hinting at coming hypocrisies, it also tacked on illiberal speech code provisions.)
Transparency was a dream of American political progressives since they first graced the world with their presence. Progressive Hall of Famer Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”2 Suitably, he offered this wisdom in the context of “Other People’s Money,” the title of his work containing the axiom.
The man who appointed Brandeis to the Court, Woodrow Wilson, waxed on about the ideal well before his elevation to the presidency. In 1884 Wilson wrote, in his typically deathless prose, that “[l]ight is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere—light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government,” and on and on for one hundred twenty words before rediscovering the dreaded punctuation mark, the period.3
All quite earnest, as liberals are known to be. And the sermon tells us that progressives would be appalled if, say, an out-of-control EPA administrator, who also ordered records being sought by the public destroyed, demanded creation of a secret, “secondary” email account despite insisting she never really used her computer anyway (when asked about having her hard drive be wiped clean, oddly, and in violation of a court order). About this secret account, an agency document I obtained in 2012 states, “Few EPA staff members, usually only high-level senior staff, even know that these accounts exist. Therefore, responsibility for identifying, printing and submitting records for filing in accordance with EPA records schedules falls to the Administrator.” This document openly acknowledges that not even the office that created the account for the administrator knows whether she—or the current administrator, running similarly amok if not more so—has turned over emails from them that are responsive to freedom of information requests.
Surely that sort of thing would be an enormous affront to liberal principles? As you’ll read, the answer is that it depends on whom we’re speaking about, and what end or which master the secrecy or transparency is intended to serve. That is what dictates the righteousness or outrageousness of an act.
This is not a complete surprise, particularly given the admissions by liberal activists and interest groups of such situational principles. For example, they would protest the Obama administration more if only it weren’t the Obama administration.4 So, for liberals, disclosure is no longer necessarily a good idea, if it threatens the liberal enterprise (government, academia); it is, however, worthy indeed when useful to find any cudgel against private parties opposing said liberal enterprises.
The perversion of the law is now institutionalized. President Obama has installed political appointees into the machinery designed to provide the public with information it is owed. Through them the administration stonewalls requests for information from perceived enemies while providing immediate turnaround to friends; strategically abuses the law by attending to languishing requests once the release becomes politically beneficial to them; and even promiscuously leaks classified information from the highest political levels in efforts to bolster Obama’s electoral standing while conducting the most aggressive prosecution campaign against whistleblowers and leakers in the country’s history (and that’s according to fellow liberals).
Then there is the matter of their dirty laundry, and the often extreme ploys to impose Obama’s agenda, including through the bureaucracy. About this, I have found scandalous cronyism and internal admissions of damaging truths that are denied publicly. Their efforts to avoid scrutiny range from awkward use of code names for high-profile political appointees to using “cutouts,” or intermediaries, to frustrate information requests. I have also uncovered widespread use by activist employees of the federal government—both career and political appointees—of private means to conduct official business: unofficial computers, off-site servers, and private email accounts that, like those secret email addresses created to keep correspondence from being seen, all were presumably free from prying taxpayer eyes and record-retention systems. It will require a fierce battle in court to obtain access to records always under the exclusive control of the employee choosing to conduct business away from official channels, and these are most likely being regularly purged.
Transparency in government can be as entertaining as it is illuminating, if sadly so. My first indication of this came when I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to elicit an admission by the Clinton-Gore administration that no, they never considered using emergency authority to impose a certain regulation despite hysterically claiming it would immediately save tens of thousands of American lives . . . each year! As I delicately reminded them, this is the same emergency authority invoked for seemingly lesser crises, like sparing a handful of sea turtles.5 So . . .
By their own terms, then, with forty-plus Americans dropping dead each and every day and the time it would take to hash things out in boring old Federal Register notice-and-comment proceedings, this cruel decision to treat the unprecedented public health crisis like just another rule-making sentenced as many as thirty thousand citizens to premature, avoidable death.
But, as they plainly agreed, not really. What was really going on was that this was a particularly expensive and controversial regulation—at the time, expected to be “perhaps most costly regulations the EPA has ever promulgated”6 and about which internal documents revealed grave administration concerns not acknowledged to the public.7 Their “no records” response to me proved the claims to be alarmist rhetoric of the worst variety, nothing more than cynical politics, trying to scare the public into sympathy for the costly scheme while framing opposition as heartless. (The ruse so outrageously exposed bureaucratic abuses, it led to a law requiring that certain claims by the government at least meet a minimum threshold for quality, the Information Quality Act.)
FOIA proved useful to my policy work as years, issues, and political administrations came and went. After some wrangling, one particularly productive FOIA request to the Obama Treasury Department in 2009 unearthed internal documents laying out the true plan for the “cap-and-trade” scheme, to raise up to $400 billion per year, an enormous, job-killing cost denied by the plan’s supporters. An open-minded writer with CBSNews.com reviewed the material, analyzed it on his own, grilled me about my take, and wrote a pair of devastating columns. These caused terrific liberal outrage and surely helped lead to that scheme’s death in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and an electoral body count among those who voted for it in the House of Representatives.8
Then there are the smaller fry, if still often highly instructive. In 2012 I obtained an email sent to the Department of Energy political appointee in charge of renewable energy from her close pal the managing director of Solyndra’s outside political consulting firm. Just a note to let her know he was “at [the] poolside bar at Caesars having a drink” with her “Senior Advisor” (a twenty-something poli sci grad, which might explain a lot about these “green jobs” disasters except, as further information requests revealed, it was more cronyism than lack of experience or understanding driving the boondoggles). Right about then, back in Washington, President Obama’s political team was leaning on colleagues in government to get a campaign bundler’s company—Solyndra—a historically wasteful loan guarantee, soon to be predictably squandered.9
Raise a glass in return to toast this insight into how our dollars get spent, if a year late and a half-billion dollars short. Other emails showed the same DOE political appointee in charge of “green energy,” assistant secretary Cathy Zoi, bantering as close confidants do with yet a different partner in Solyndra’s political firm, Mike Feldman. One thread discussed dinner at her house that weekend, if he could make it, which promised to be a blast as “a couple of other fun political animals will be there.”10 Other Zoi emails showed her enlisting the same firm, apparently pro bono (although that would seem to be a legal no-no),11 to help pull together materials she wanted to consider when developing DOE’s campaign, pushing the same agenda but from the inside.
But, no, that whole Solyndra and “green stimulus” boondoggle and the cronies who made out at the taxpayer’s expense,12 that money was “invested” on the merits.
These emails discussing drinks and dinner parties were originally withheld in full by the administration, with no legal basis and precisely the sort of defensive crouch that President Obama so loudly insisted would not occur on his watch, crowing upon his inauguration that “[t]he Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.”13
In truth, despite all of the promises and boasts, this presidential directive merely reflects long-standing policy on information dissemination and access, and is routinely ignored.
With the current administration, risibly self-congratulating as the most transparent in history, we now know to ask sooner than we did with Solyndra, even if by the time that scandal broke I had already used information requests to expose the basic but thorough corruption of Obama’s “green energy” operation. For example, another of my FOIA requests to the Department of Energy led to a treasure trove of emails exposing what Investor’s Business Daily called “The Big Wind Cover-Up.” This also uncovered the collaborative effort to smear the Spanish “green jobs” economics professor and his team’s work documenting the true disaster of liberal plans to reorganize America’s economy as “the clean energy economy.” FOIA allowed me to chase down the genesis of this panic-driven attempt at discrediting people viewed as political opponents; this instance confirmed aggressive violations of Barack Obama’s promises of transparency and to banish lobbyists from insider roles in the policy process.
But documents pried out of the administration also let slip revealing details of how this defense of a “renewables” industry that Solyndra later made famous was coordinated with the windmill lobby and left-wing pressure groups. These included George Soros’s project, the Center for American Progress (CAP), using the industrial wind lobby as the go-between in anticipation of DOE claiming, for example, to Congress that it “had no direct contact with” CAP or another pressure group to which the windmill lobbyists served as DOE’s “cutout” contact. Investor’s Business Daily described these records as being as substantively explosive as the previously described “Climategate” leak in 2009 of emails and computer code, because it showed senior Obama political appointees doing the bidding for industries that were propped up in the name of an anti-energy ideology and crony capitalism, joined with the assault on abundant domestic energy sources that work and are therefore also disfavored for ideological reasons.
So, the FOI Act, properly implemented, provides a useful tool. It enabled me to obtain emails from a career activist federal employee working with outside liberal ideologues to lobby and pressure the George W. Bush administration to come around more to their way of thinking. The law allowed me to out an activist running a third-party website supporting Obama policies from a taxpayer-funded office, on taxpayer time and without having obtained ethics clearance to do so. Then there were the other, career employees dedicated to advancing Obama’s ideological agenda, neutered by FOIA revelations from being useful future witnesses before Congress or courts as supposed unbiased authorities, or who simply found themselves spending more time with their families and pursuing other interests, after exposure of what they were all up to on the taxpayer’s time.
Of course, FOI laws are equal opportunity vehicles, notwithstanding the faddish claim that certain bad people like me shouldn’t be allowed to use them anymore. Texas’s FOI law enabled me to affirm that there was a reason presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was less than convincing when telling an Iowa voter about a chapter in his upcoming book to be written by a global warming alarmist, “That’s not going to be in the book. We didn’t know that they were doing that and we told them to kill it.” In fact, an email that appeared to be the final correspondence between Newt’s coauthor and the public-university academic and activist before that revelation and denial confirmed plans for her chapter’s inclusion.14
These are reasons why transparency laws are tools that liberals believe have outlived their usefulness and demand “reform” of, now that they can only cause unwanted problems for the institutions subject to these requirements.15 You will read how FOI laws are subverted in the meantime, as they take matters into their own hands. There are tactics you should expect to confront in order to navigate your government to find out what we deserve to know. (Activists in career government positions and academia also regularly use these same moves.)
This book relates my own experience and the experience of others with this campaign to deny access to information about the activities of government, to bar access for those people viewed as a threat to what one character repeatedly called “the cause,” just one of many causes liberals use government and academia to advance. I relate these experiences to expose how liberals are trying to stop us from seeing what else they are up to, and how to take them on.
Chapters one through ten detail these tactics and how they are being more aggressively abused in the age of Obama. It assumes a basic understanding of freedom of information laws as transparency statutes guaranteeing the taxpayer the right to inspect public records reflecting how the government conducts its business, with limited exceptions and a presumption of honest implementation by employees charged with providing this information.
I then return to the statute’s governing principles and its nuts and bolts, providing background information and a road map for you to hold your government and the activists within it accountable as they test or even ignore the limits of the many vague, sweeping grants of power provided by Congress. This offers the basic framework for dealing with the hurdles placed in your path, and lets you in on the tricks of their trade.
Liberals have come to despise the requirement of transparency and you must now press the truth upon them that, if they want taxpayer money, there are indeed strings that come with it, principal among them being transparency and thereby (presumably) accountability. If not, the solution is to find another job, or live off other money. It is not to undermine the public’s right to open government and transparent use of our tax dollars.
What you read should disappoint you about your government and occasionally infuriate you. My hope is that it motivates and energizes you to enter the fray and take effective action yourself to pull threads, find and then follow trails of bread crumbs, work around or plow through obstacles, and become someone your government begins to treat with respect.
Transparency is a condition of living off the taxpayer as well as a necessary condition for liberty. If liberals succeed in undermining it, they will be unencumbered in using the money and authority afforded them by our laws, as grants from us. And we will wake up one day to realize we are far less free.
Use this tool, and your freedom of obtaining information, or risk losing it. As you will read, taking this right away from you is a liberal priority.