Wikileaks just notified people that they are releasing over $1 billion dollars' worth of reports gathered by the Congressional Research Services (CRS). These reports are provided to members of the US Congress and are legally in the public domain. However, they are only released to the public with the permission of Congress in a complex system of permissions and protocols and ass-covering politicians. Needless to say, attempts to free this information from the 'red tape' that keeps it from actually being released to the public have been met with resistance.Well, leave it to Wikileaks to strike a blow for transparency.
Cross-posted at The National Gadfly
These reports cover a broad range of subjects, including reviews of domestic and foreign policy, military operations, liability for disasters and conflict, taxes, alternative fuels, SEC, telecom, banking, adult education, literacy, FEMA, domestic surveillance, global warming, offshore banking - to name only a fraction.
Head on over there and pick out a nice juicy morsel of information that is by rights, property of the American people.
February 8, 2009
Change you can download.
Wikileaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress.
The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to abortion legislation. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1996. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress’s analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.
Open government lawmakers such as Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) have fought for years make the reports public, with bills being introduced–and rejected–almost every year since 1998.
CRS reports are highly regarded as non-partisan, in-depth, and timely. The reports top the list of the "10 Most-Wanted Government Documents" compiled by the Washington based Center for Democracy and Technology. The Federation of American Scientists, in pushing for the reports to be made public, stated that the "CRS is Congress’ Brain and it’s useful for the public to be plugged into it,". While Wired magazine called their concealment "The biggest Congressional scandal of the digital age".
Although all CRS reports are legally in the public domain, they are quasi-secret because the CRS, as a matter of policy, makes the reports available only to members of Congress, Congressional committees and select sister agencies such as the GAO.
Members of Congress are free to selectively release CRS reports to the public but are only motivated to do so when they feel the results would assist them politically. Universally embarrassing reports are kept quiet.
Each time the topic of opening up the reports comes up, it runs into walls erected by opposing lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who "like many members of Congress, views CRS as an extension of his staff,". If the reports were made public, "every time a member requests a particular document, the public may infer that he’s staking out a particular policy position." (Aaron Saunders, Stevens’ spokesman, Washington Post, 2007).
However that hasn’t stopped a grey market forming around the documents. Opportunists smuggle out nearly all reports and sell them to cashed up special interests–lobbyists, law firms, multi-nationals, and presumably, foreign governments. Congress has turned a blind eye to special interest access, while continuing to vote down public access.
Opposition to public availability comes not only from members of Congress but, also, from within the CRS.
One might think that the CRS, as an agency of the Library of Congress, would institutionally support having a wider audience. But an internal memo reveals the CRS lobbying against bills (S. Res. 54 and H.R. 3630) which would have given the public access to its reports (Project on Government Secrecy, FAS, 2003).
The primary line pushed by the CRS is the one that appeals most to Congressional members–open publication would prevent spin control. The memo states this in delicate terms, referring to such spin failures as "Impairment of Member Communication with Constituents".
Of course the CRS doesn’t really care about politicians facing much needed voter discipline, but it does have reasons of its own to avoid public oversight. Institutionally, the CRS has established an advisory relationship with members of Congress similar to the oversight-free relationship established between intelligence agencies and the office of the President.
Free from meaningful public oversight of its work, the CRS, as "Congress’s brain", is able to influence Congressional outcomes, even when its reports contain errors. Arguably, its institutional power over congress is second only to the parties themselves. Public oversight would reduce its ability to exercise that influence without criticism. That is why it opposes such oversight, and that is why such oversight must be established immediately.
In 1913 Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a forceful proponent for open government, stated "Sunlight is the best disinfectant; electric light the most efficient policeman". Those wise words are still true today.
Welcome, Congress, to our generation’s electric sun.
Update [2009-2-8 10:14:49 by the national gadfly]:
Wow, Rec List! Thanks everyone for that. Really.
As noted below in the comments, not everyone is going to be a juicy or criminal offense. But, I see this as important for two reasons: - One, if they were withheld from the public, there must be some member of Congress that didn't want them published. That is compelling enough to me. - Two, it is a good window into what Congress knows, when they know it and what they decide to do with that information. Also good reading.
Thanks again. Time now for coffee and taking the child to Turkish Language class.
Update [2009-2-8 14:52:15 by the national gadfly]:
Slashdot is covering the information as well, here.
If you would like to learn more about Wikileaks, here is an excellent article by Jonathan Stray on his blog. There are links to view the panel discussion at the bottom of that page, so you can hear them in their own words.
I just spoke to the folks at Wikileaks. I asked them what they wanted me to say to everyone here. Basically, these requests came from that.
They have a chat function that you can use to talk to them in real time. If you have questions for them, swing by that the link here.
Anyone that wants to help them read, analyze and publicize is completely welcome and wholeheartedly invited.
Money is needed, so if you have the means to support them, you can do so here.
They are building and uploading a torrent file. I'll post that as soon as it's completed.
From their updated post:
How many of the reports have not been seen before?
We have sent the reports to OpenCRS, a great service run by the Center for Democracy and Technology which collects released CRS reports.
Of the 6,731 reports we sent to OpenCRS, 6,284 were new to the OpenCRS collection.
Many CRS reports focus on long-term issues, such as the United States relationship with other countries, or key legislation. These reports keep the same report number over decades of editions. Of the 6,284 reports not in OpenCRS, 4,079 were new editions and 2,205 were completely new.
You can see quickly see possible older CRS report editions by following the OpenCRS link on the bottom right of any reports Wikileaks information page.
Update [2009-2-8 17:46:22 by the national gadfly]: Bittorrent update. You can find the files on The Pirate Bay. They were uploaded to Wikileaks by one reader and uploaded to TPB by another, so thanks all around. They are on Demonoid now, thanks to Sark in comments!
I am so thrilled that this community is taking to this information. Any support you can give to Wikileaks will help us all. They need server space, cash, trained analyisis of medical, government, scientific and economic documents. If you have the bandwidth, brains or cash to lend to the cause of transparency - we will all benefit from your efforts.