By Michael J. Sniffen
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Breaking a tradition of openness that began in 1816, the Bush administration has without explanation withheld the names and work locations of about 900,000 of its civilian workers, according to a lawsuit filed last week .
"Citizens have a right to know who is working for the government," said Adina Rosenbaum, attorney for the co-directors of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University, which sued under the Freedom of Information Act to get the data.
Since 1989, TRAC has posted a database on the Internet with the name, work location, salary and job category of all 2.7 million federal civilian workers except those in some law enforcement agencies. The data are often used by reporters and government watchdog groups to monitor policies and detect waste or abuse.
Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility used the database to identify and locate U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists for a survey. Many of the scientists complained of political intervention into their research.
TRAC used the data to monitor the Bush administration's promise to increase security along the Canadian border after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Six months later, TRAC found Border Patrol agents on that border were up from 331 to just 346. A year later, the number had reached 515, but not one was assigned to the Canada-Alaska border despite Alaska's potential strategic targets.
The New York Daily News used the data to find the names of guards at a federal detention center where prisoner abuse was alleged. Another reporter used the information to find the names of Transportation Security Administration guards assigned to New York's LaGuardia Airport to pursue cargo theft allegations.
"Secret governors are incompatible with a free government," the TRAC co-directors wrote the federal Office of Personnel Management on Feb. 2 when the agency withheld the data. "Basic information about the employees who carry out the day-to-day actions of government is critical for meaningful public oversight."
The group's leaders are David Burnham, a former New York Times reporter who directs TRAC's Washington office, and Susan B. Long, a Syracuse University professor who runs its upstate New York office. The suit was filed in federal court in Syracuse.
OPM spokesman Mike Orenstein said the agency does not comment on litigation as a matter of policy.
Using FOIA, TRAC has obtained the data on compact discs every three months.
The federal government began publicly naming its employees, their job category, salary and workplace in 1816. The first entry in the 1816 register was James Madison. He was identified as president of the United States in Washington at a salary of $25,000 -- and born in Virginia. The second entry was Secretary of State James Monroe, salary: $5,000.
Lower on that page were Treasury Department messenger John Connell, a Marylander who worked in Washington for $410 a year, and Comptroller's Office clerk Richard H. Briscoe, another Marylander working in Washington, for $1,000 a year.
The last complete data set provided by OPM covered 2003. Since then, all records of civilian employees of the Defense Department have been withheld, and the names and duty locations of about 150,000 other civilian workers were withheld, the lawsuit said. The others work in 650 occupations at 250 agencies including the Federal Trade Commission, the National Park Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Gary A. Lukowski, OPM's workforce information manager, wrote TRAC in late 2004 that the agency was reviewing its policy "on disclosure of individual employee records as this relates to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act."
In the spring, Lukowski forwarded the 2004 discs and noted that the "major change affecting your request is that individual records for the Department of Defense are excluded from the file provided." He told TRAC it would have to request the records from the Pentagon directly.
The lawsuit said that, in violation of the FOIA, OPM did not even mention that another 150,000 names and workplaces had been deleted or why, and that OPM has not responded to requests for an explanation of its new policy.