By Brian Krebs
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
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.
Often used by lobbyists and industry analysts as indicators of what's next on Capitol Hill, the CRS reports also can be politically explosive. Reports questioning the constitutionality of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program have been seized upon by media outlets and lawmakers alike.
"In one sense, they're afraid of becoming a political agency, because the more public these reports get, the more politicized they may become," Schwartz said.
CDT maintains OpenCRS.com, to date the largest repository of CRS reports. Schwartz said the 6,780 reports released by Wikileaks should help to fill in most of the gaps in its archive of missing CRS reports going back several years.
Schwartz said Wikileaks has agreed to feed OpenCRS.com's document collection with all newly released CRS reports it receives.
In years past, several lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to garner support for making the CRS reports directly available to citizens online. One such proponent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-Conn.), praised the action by Wikileaks, saying he hopes to work with the Senate Rules Committee "to create a comprehensive and officially-sanctions system for releasing CRS reports to the public."
"I have long argued that CRS reports should be made more widely available to the public, in part because they are produced at public expense and because broad dissemination supports the goal of greater government transparency," Lieberman said. "Wikileaks's recent action demonstrates the futility of any effort to limit distribution of those reports."
The secrecy of the reports has created a bootleg market for the documents. Gallery Watch, owned by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, has sold the CRS reports for years. Gallery Watch declined to comment for this story.
Gallery Watch receives its feed of CRS reports from Walt Seager, 70, a former trade magazine journalist based in Damascus, Md., who for 25 years has mined the Hill for them.
For his part, Seager is unconcerned about the mass publication of CRS documents and said he welcomes the challenge.
"I don't think it will be a complete archive, and I don't think they'll have the timeliness and value-added material that we can bring," Seager said. "Life is pretty boring without some competition."