Earlier versions of this story misidentified Sen. Joe Lieberman's political affiliation. The text below has been corrected.
Thousands of Congressional Reports Now Available Online
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; 10:12 AM
Open government groups scored a small but potentially decisive victory this week in a long-running battle to win publication of thousands of secret reports that Congress uses to fashion new laws.
Each year, with the help of more than $100 million in funding from Congress, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) produces thousands of reports on legislative policy issues ranging from farm subsidies to weapons sales. While the reports are neither copyrighted nor classified, their release has been solely at the discretion of lawmakers.
But on Monday, Wikileaks.org, an online clearinghouse for leaked documents, published thousands of previously unreleased CRS reports. At the same time, the group says it is on track to receive a steady stream of new reports, which it plans to feed to open government groups and directly to consumers via its Web site.
Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Schmitt said the documents were obtained through the congressional intranet several weeks ago, and that the group plans to continue publishing the reports as long as their confidential source keeps providing them.
"These documents belong in the public domain because they represent an essential part of policymaking and they are produced with taxpayer dollars," Schmitt said. The Wikileaks Web site was temporarily unavailable for several hours on Monday as nearly five million visitors tried to download the massive 2 GB archive. Schmitt called the public response unprecedented, noting that the documents attracted more visitors than during Wikileak's last headline grabbing stunt: The publication of e-mails and images seized by a hacker who broke into the Yahoo! e-mail account of then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
CRS spokesperson Janine D'Addario said funding legislation from Congress specifically restricts CRS from making the reports directly available to the public.
"One of the concerns is that publication directly to the public has the potential to impair communications between members of Congress and their constituents," D'Addario said. "Because we work for Congress, we don't want to be placed in a situation where we're speaking directly to those constitutens."
Steven Aftergood, who maintains a blog about government secrecy related to intelligence and national security policy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the CRS has long maintained that its analysts work for members of Congress and should not be interacting with the general public.
"It's sort of a turf-based desire to keep CRS at the disposal of members of Congress, which is completely bogus," Aftergood said. "The CRS in what it does is very similar to the General Accountability Office. Both are congressional offices that work at the direction of Congress, and yet GAO manages to publish new reports on its site every day without any detrimental effect."
Aftergood said the reports range in quality from the banal to some of the best analysis available.
"While 90 percent of the reports are probably mediocre, at their best they are very good," Aftergood said. "One I published on our Web site today about technologies for detecting nuclear weapons is literally the best treatment of the subject I've seen."
Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said while the CRS reports are even-handed to a fault, CRS has nonetheless sought to distance itself from potentially divisive policy battles.