Caught in Fast and Furious crossfire: A lot of trees

Even though a presidential directive asks federal agencies to communicate electronically when­ever possible, the Department of Homeland Security still prefers paper, at least when responding to document requests from Congress.

DHS has chosen the old-fashioned medium to provide thousands of e-mails, memos and other documents to Senate and House committees investigating Operation Fast and Furious, the Obama administration’s botched gun-tracking operation. This makes for a lot of paper.

The policy has rankled congressional Republicans, who penned a letter of complaint this week to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“By unnecessarily printing tens of thousands of pages of documents, DHS is harming the environment and wasting taxpayer money,” wrote Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

The committees have sought thousands of documents and called agency officials to testify at a series of hearings as they investigate what went wrong with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives effort to shut down the flow of U.S. guns to Mexican drug cartels.

The lawmakers noted that President Obama has announced plans to boost DHS spending on cybersecurity by more than $300 million in 2013, to more than $769 million.

“Would any portion of these additional funds be used to enable DHS to send documents to Congress in a secure electronic format?” they asked.

DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said the department “will respond directly to the senator.”

But the letter references what DHS lawyers apparently have told Judiciary Committee staff by way of partial explanation of their paper-only stance: It results from “internal processes.” The lawmakers are seeking further explanation.

“It would be like if the [Congressional Budget Office] presented estimates to Congress with an abacus or if the transportation secretary rode around town in a horse and buggy,” Grassley said in a new release this week.

Said a Grassley aide who declined to be identified: “It’s 2012. Do we really have to abuse the Xerox machine to trade correspondence?”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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