Monday, January 31, 2011

Could I just chime in here on Howie's post today about Darrell Issa's latest astonishing stunt?


There oughtta be a law about this, you'd figure. But then, hasn't our Darrell lived his life according to the precept, "You can't pin nuttin' on me, coppers"?

by Ken

Earlier today Howie called attention to a NYT report on an astonishing maneuver by the new chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, our old pal Darrell "If You Think Crime Doesn't Pay, You Must Be Doing It Wrong" Issa. (At the moment the handiest guide to his career skirting the law is Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker poke-about). Our boy is trying to to is get his mitts on "the names of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, business executives, journalists and others who have requested copies of federal government documents in recent years," a request that even the NYT's Eric Lipton called "extraordinary."

That's putting it mildly, it seems to me.

Just to be clear what our Darrell is doing, here's Eric Lipton laying it out:
Mr. Issa sent a letter on Tuesday asking 180 federal agencies, from the Department of Defense to the Social Security Administration, for electronic files containing the names of people who requested the documents, the date of their requests and a description of information they sought. For those still pending after more than 45 days, he also asked for any communication between the requestor and the federal agency. The request covers the final three years of Bush administration and the first two years of President Obama’s.

“Our interest is not in the private citizens who make the requests,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Mr. Issa. “We are looking at government responses to these Freedom of Information requests and the only way to measure that is to tally all that information."

That's the official story. Our Darrell is so concerned with open government, we're asked to believe, so determined to put teeth in the Freedom of Information Act, that he simply must have all this information. It would be easy to assume that it's just a stunt to embarrass the Democratic administration (which of course is exactlyl what I assume it is), but remember, three of the five years' worth of data he's commandeered comes from the Bush regime, and surely in the time that the FOIA has been on the books, no administration has treated it with such casual and thoroughgoing contempt. But we really don't expect Issa's version of "oversight" to go there, do we?

Howie quoted intrepid watchdog Russ Baker -- wondering whether our Darrell is "The New Face of Big Brother?" -- saying, "If, indeed, Issa is just super concerned about openness in government, that’s fine. But it’s not clear that a member of Congress -- and a highly politicized, partisan one at that -- ought to be the one to receive such sensitive information." I don't think Russ actually meant this to come out quite the way it did. I don't think he really meant to say that an information heist like this if "fine" under any circumstances.

Even if, unbeknownst to anyone treading the planet, Darrell Issa has somehow turned into the most relentless crusader on our shores in quest of open government, he has no business asking for, let alone getting, this information. (And there really doesn't seem to be any ready legal way of preventing him from getting what he's asked for.) While you might think there would be some kind of law protecting the privacy of FOIA filers -- precisely from the possibility for abuse, which is pretty much our Darrell's middle name -- I assume Darrell's people have ascertained that there isn't any such law. Hasn't he lived his life according to the precept, "You can't pin nuttin' on me, coppers"?

Eric Lipton again:
Yearly, the federal government receives about 600,000 FOIA requests, as they are called, a vast majority from corporate executives seeking information on competitors that might do business with the government. A much smaller number comes from civil libertarians, private citizens, whistle-blowers or journalists seeking information on otherwise secret government operations.

Federal agencies typically keep logs of these requests, and some even post them on their Internet sites. But officials often remove the names of private citizens when releasing the logs to protect their privacy.

Ah, privacy. Right-wingers tend to be pretty obsessive about their own but pretty casual about other people's, especially people who don't toe the line of their political orthodoxies. Just think about all those whiners making FOIA requests, at the mercy of, well, Darrell Issa.

Ostensibly, the impetus for this fishing expedition (say, don't Republicans usually scream bloody murder about congressional committee "fishing expeditions"? oh wait, that's when there are Democrats in charge of the committees, though better not to mention layers upon layers of scum and stench they've been faced with wading through when they even gave it a shot) is a rising chorus of complaints, ironically mostly leftward-based, about slack FOIA compliance within the Obama administration. Somehow, this doesn't surprise me at all. It sounds like just another area in which the differences between this administration and its predecessor can be mighty hard to distinguish.

NYT reporter Lipton came up with an interesting case in point:
A staff member on Mr. Issa’s committee said the congressman’s interest in the documents issue was spurred by such complaints. John Verdi, a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, whose FOIA requests last year to the Homeland Security Department were subjected to political review, said he welcomed Mr. Issa’s inquiry. Federal law allows information to be withheld only for specific legal reasons.

But Mr. Verdi was uncomfortable with the idea of any single government entity having a list of every person who has made a FOIA request. “This is data that could be used to track who the biggest gadfly is,” he said.

Ohmygosh, a Republican committee staffer caught blowing it out his butt! Hopelesser and hopelesser as Beltway Dems have become, they're still not absolutely indistinguishable from lockstep Republicans. The latter, it appears, can be distinguished by the characteristic that they will never under any circumstances tell the truth about any aspect of any situation. And nobody can make 'em.

And now a whole bunch of them control House committees and subcommittees which give them power to compel information from most anybody, via simple demand or even subpoena. (Just 'cause Democratic committee chairs couldn't get squat via subpoena doesn't mean the same will be true of GOP chairs.) For the final comic touch in this tragicomic farce, Eric Lipton returned to Issa spokescreep Kurt Bardella.
Mr. Bardella said the oversight committee frequently received important information, like mortgage documents or corporate records, and was able to review them without compromising anyone’s privacy. It could be hard to check, though. Congress excluded itself from the Freedom of Information Act.

Are we laughing yet?


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