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Thursday, October 27, 2016

As states move to hide details of government deals with Wall Street, and as politicians come up with new arguments to defend secrecy, a study released earlier this month revealed that many government information officers block specific journalists they don’t like from accessing information. The news comes as 47 federal inspectors general sent a letter to lawmakers criticizing “serious limitations on access to records” that they say have “impeded” their oversight work.

The data about public information officers was compiled over the past few years by Kennesaw State University professor Dr. Carolyn Carlson. Her surveys found that 4 in 10 public information officers say “there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to due to problems with their stories in the past.”

“That horrified us that so many would do that,” Carlson told the Columbia Journalism Review, which reported on her presentation at the July conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Carlson has conducted surveys of journalists and public information officers since 2012. In her most recent survey of 445 working journalists, four out of five reported that “their interviews must be approved” by government information officers, and “more than half of the reporters said they had actually been prohibited from interviewing [government] employees at least some of the time by public information officers.”

In recent years, there have been signs that the federal government is reducing the flow of public information. Reason magazine has reported a 114 percent increase in Freedom of Information Act rejections by the Drug Enforcement Agency since President Obama took office. The National Security Agency has also issued blanket rejections of FOIA requests about its metadata program. And the Associated Press reported earlier this year that in 2013, “the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year.”

Those revelations foreshadowed a recent letter from more than half of the government’s inspectors general saying that federal agencies’ move to hide information from them represents a “potentially serious challenge to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

In that letter, the inspectors general assert that agencies are saying information is “privileged” and therefore must be kept secret. That is one of many increasingly creative rationales that public officials are now citing as reason to keep government information secret.

In Chicago, for example, officials in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration rejected a request for documents about an opaque $1.7 billion fund that is often used for corporate subsidies, some of which have flowed to the mayor’s political donors. In a letter explaining the rejection, the officials said it would take too much staff time to compile the data and that therefore the request was “unduly burdensome.”

Likewise in Rhode Island, Democratic State Treasurer Gina Raimondo rejected a newspaper request for information about the state’s hedge fund contracts on the grounds that she wanted fund managers to “keep this information confidential to help preserve the productivity of their staff and to minimize attention around their own compensation.”

That denial was one of many similar rejections from states seeking to keep the details of their Wall Street deals secret.

Carlson’s polls from 2014 show that three-quarters of journalists surveyed now agree that “the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

That’s the whole point of government secrecy, of course — and the ramifications are predictable. In an information vacuum, the public is being systematically divorced from public policy, which is exactly what too many elected officials want.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr

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  • Dominick Vila

    Claims that journalists are being denied access to sensitive information can be traced back to, at least, the McCarthy era.
    I believe in transparency when it comes to domestic issues, but I support secrecy or, at least discretion, when it comes to national security matters. We live in a dangerous world, where threats are not limited to suspicions and actually include unambiguous statements by people determined to harm Westerners, attacks our interests abroad and at home, and end our global hegemony. Little pieces of information, that may seem trivial to most of us, are essential for those who wish to attack us again. The identification of vulnerabilities is an integral part to the success of terrorist organizations to succeed.
    Yes, we have made many mistakes. Yes, there are many things that we should have done better, or not done. Yes, global economic dominance may be the 21st version of ancient conquest. But this is our country, this is where we live, where our families, friends and neighbors live, and it is incumbent on us to do whatever we can to make sure another 9/11 never takes place again. If that means being deprived of sensitive information, that most of us need like we need a hole in the head, so be it.

    • ps0rjl

      Dominick, I will have to respectfully disagree with you. To have a true democracy, a government must be open and transparent. To allow secrecy to prevail to gain a little security is surely the road to a tyrannical government. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would trade liberty for security, deserve neither.” It is a slippery slope we are on if we allow our government to restrict access to basic information.

    • CPAinNewYork

      Actually, Dominick, suppression of the press goes back to the Civil War, when Union General Sherman ejected journalists from his camps and threatened to hang them as spies.

      Suppresssion of the press is nothing new. On the other hand, when the press doesn’t have the facts, they make them up.

      So, Dominick, take your pick: lying reporters or overbearing officials with something to hide.

      • JPHALL

        Actually that goes back to the countries very beginnings. Only a few people got unfiltered information.

    • S.J. Jolly

      “The identification of vulnerabilities is an integral part to the success of terrorist organizations to succeed.” In the former Soviet Union, this was carried out to the point of classifying dairy farm milk production. Didn’t keep the Soviet Union from collapsing. Hiding vulnerabilities prevents them from being remedied.

    • dpaano

      Try looking at how the Bush/Cheney administration totally shut out many journalists through intimidation and refusal to give them information that they requested through the FOIA. Their reasons were ridiculous……
      Sorry I keep harping on the Bush/Cheney administration, but they are the worse we’ve ever been put through and if the American public knew the HALF of what they did, they’d be totally appalled.
      I believe that we NEED certain information because without transparency in our government, we have tyranny and not democracy.

  • sigrid28

    In Ferguson, MO, we see the impact of closing the public out of information that should be disclosed, in the Michael Brown case, by the police department and local medical examiner’s office. The prosecutor has done this by impounding a grand jury, an act that forces the withholding of some information for months–information that is usually available shortly after a killing of this kind. Meanwhile, information assassinating the character of Michael Brown has been released freely. I wonder whether or not the FBI and DOJ have been denied access to the same information as has the public, a tactic perfected long ago by local police departments in the Old South. Also discouraging is the fact that this behavior can be attributed to Democratic as well as Republican government public servants in name only. At last, something everyone can agree on–bipartisan secrecy to forward the cause of xenophobia and impede the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the 21st century. If the Civil Rights Movements of the prior two centuries are any indication, those who think that withholding information is a winning tactic with eventually be disabused of that idea.

    • CPAinNewYork

      A grand jury is not impounded. It is empaneled.

      • sigrid28

        Thanks for the correction!

      • Sand_Cat

        But maybe it should be ;>)

  • Julieann Wozniak

    PayDEP and DCNR are the worst offenders in Tom Corbett’s Pennsylvania, since they’re in the hip pocket of the very polluters they’re supposed to regulate. That’s why we rely on new media and a listserv network to get the word out.

  • ExRadioGuy15

    To really understand what’s behind this, you have to go back to the Roaring Twenties, when the GOP took over politics and ruled with an iron fist. That is, until their financial policies led to the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and launched the Great Depression.
    The GOP have been Fascists at least since then and one of the defining characteristics of Fascism is control of the mass media. The GOP practice pathetic projectional hypocrisy when they claim that the Obama administration (or any other Democratic administration) isn’t being “transparent” about matters.
    Helping the GOP back then were the Conservative judges in the federal court system and the Con judges on the Supreme Court at the time, who ruled that “matters of national security” deserved the protection it now enjoys from transparency .
    But, for the most part, Republican administrations have taken that protection to a new level, using it justify their Fascism. BTW: another one of the defining characteristics of Fascism is obsession with national security, where the Fascist regime (GOP in US) stokes xenophobia from its followers by wrongly claiming that the country’s security is at risk. That is one of the five “DCs” of Fascism to which the GOP adhere on just one subject: the southern border “security” crisis.
    The Obama administration is simply going through the door the Bush 43 administration opened. Remember that the crown jewel of the GOP’s complete transition to Fascism, the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (which was written, passed and signed into law by the GOP), gives all future Presidents enhanced executive power. The GOP opened this “Pandora’s Box” and is now trying to close it during Democratic administrations, hence, their projectional hypocrisy.
    You will notice, btw, that the “Firebagger” (Libertarian) contingent within the GOP, who have “radical social liberalism” as one of their five Tenets, are all over these issues of human rights and secrecy, while the rest of the party are trying to keep their mouths shut and not commit further acts of projectional hypocrisy. Sen. Rand Paul is a Firebagger, which is why he’s spoken out against the militarization of the police. Meanwhile, you don’t hear anything from the rest of the party.
    Let’s face facts here: the Republican and Libertarian Parties are this country’s most dangerous enemies….not Al-Qaeda, not ISIL, not Russia, not China or anyone else…the GOP and Firebaggers are the problem.
    This fall, the voters of this country, especially GOP Progressives and Moderates, can do something about this by voting OUT the GOP wherever possible and electing Democrats in their places. While the Democrats are no perfect, it is false equivalency to claim that they and the GOP are the same. They’re not.
    While it’s true that the GOP and Demos have both moved “right”, that only means that the GOP represents a superminority of loud, wrong and insane Fascist ideologues and the Democratic Party represents everyone else, including GOP Progressives and Moderates.
    This Non-Affiliated voter (who hasn’t belonged to a political party since 1990) implores one and all to vote this fall and vote for Democrats. GOP leadership has sunk to the lowest depths of Fascism and there’s no way to bring them back up..they’ve reached “Davy Jones’ Locker” in a political manner. It’s time to let them rest in peace there, politically.

  • Sand_Cat

    Appalling that an administration elected to at least slow US decline into a secretive corporate kleptocracy / police state seems to have accelerated it. The people cannot govern without accurate information. Too many of us don’t take full advantage of available info, and even that is diminishing.

    • dpaano

      I agree….most people listen to or read information that is filtererd by our government. Most of this information on these stations (FOX, etc.) are lies and disinformation; however, people believe it without even doing ANY research. It’s sad what comes out of our news agencies nowadays, especially those who are owned by conservatives.