Sunday, June 24, 2018

Trump’s Gang Tries to Hide Its Crimes: Attacking the Freedom of Information Act

Evan Osnos has produced a must-read article for The New Yorker titled Trump vs. The “Deep State”.  His focus is suggested by this lede.

“How the Administration’s loyalists are quietly reshaping American governance.”

Osnos surveys the role the Trump administration has played in providing critical hires for government positions, and in the management of government departments.  On first read, one is struck by the incompetence demonstrated in the process.  On second thought, one notices the number of ethically-challenged individuals that are in positions of power.  A little deeper thought leads to the realization that our government has been invaded by a small group of individuals who—whether driven by greed or lust for power—are wiling to break any rule or law that gets in their way as they pursue their personal goals.  Trump has set the example for others to follow.

Consider the vetting process used to insert unqualified and/or ineligible people into positions of power.

“To vet candidates, the Obama campaign had used a questionnaire with sixty-three queries about employment, finances, writings, and social-media posts. The Trump team cut the number of questions to twenty-five, by dropping the requests for professional references and tax returns and removing items concerning loans, personal income, and real-estate holdings.”

“According to one lawyer, the transition sought ‘work-arounds’—ways that incoming officials could retain investments without breaking the laws against conflicts of interest. ‘If you look at them as technical rules that lawyers should be able to “get around,” that gives you a whole different approach,’ the lawyer told me. ‘It’s like tweeting after a couple of beers. It’s not going to end well’.” 

Hardly a day goes by without some new revelation of malfeasance by a cabinet member.  One can only wonder at what might be taking place at lower levels of government.  What would be considered crimes in previous administrations are acquiesced to as the costs of maintaining dominance by a compliant Republican Party.

The most troubling practice is the destruction of reality.  Facts are denied or hidden from view in order to promote agendas.  Trump provides the prime example.  He tells obvious lies loudly and repeatedly.  The media repeats his lies, thus giving them more credence with the gullible.

Osnos detected the altering are hiding of facts as a growing practice within government agencies.

“In one agency after another, I encountered a pattern: on controversial issues, the Administration is often not writing down potentially damaging information.”

Consider the example of Ben Carson’s HUD spending.

“After members of Congress requested details on Carson’s decorating expenses, Marcus Smallwood, the departmental-records officer at HUD, wrote an open letter to Carson, saying, ‘I do not have confidence that HUD can truthfully provide the evidence being requested by the House Oversight Committee because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters’.”

And then there is the Department of the Interior.

“At the Department of the Interior, the Inspector General’s office investigated Zinke’s travel expenses but was stymied by ‘absent or incomplete documentation’ that would ‘distinguish between personal, political, and official travel’.” 

“According to Ruch, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, when environmentalists filed suit to discover if industry lobbyists had influenced a report on Superfund sites, they were told, ‘There are no minutes, no work product, no materials.’ Ruch added, ‘The task-force report was a product of immaculate conception.’ He believes that the Administration is ‘deliberately avoiding creating records’.”

The Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also been participating in the altering of reality.

“The mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, had infuriated the White House by warning undocumented residents of a forthcoming sweep. Jeff Sessions accused her of sabotage, saying, ‘ICE failed to make eight hundred arrests that they would have made if the mayor had not acted as she did.’ That figure became an instant talking point on cable news. And, in comments the next day, Trump elevated the eight hundred to ‘close to a thousand people’.”

James Schwab was the spokesperson for the ICE office in San Francisco.  He knew from experience that such an ICE sweep was unlikely to round up more than about 200 people.  The actual number of arrestees was 232.  Schwab deemed the pronouncements by Trump and Sessions as intentionally misleading and politically motivated.

 “ ‘I contacted the headquarters and said, “How are we going to respond to this when we know this is inaccurate?” ’ he recalled. Schwab was told not to elaborate or correct the error; instead, he should refer reporters to existing statements. ‘That just shook me,’ he told me.”

“Rather than aiding in the deception, Schwab resigned. ‘A lot of people in the federal government are holding on tight, trying to keep everything going properly,’ he told me. ‘And people are fearful to say anything. I was fortunate enough to be able to quit my job and say something, but most people aren’t able to do that.’ The White House has politicized work that was once insulated from interference, Schwab said. ‘We see that in the F.B.I. very publicly, and then I saw that at ICE from the highest levels of the White House. Who knows where else it’s happening in the rest of the government’.”

With the pollical sensitivity of all matters related to immigration, one would think that a detailed accounting of ICE’s activities would be crucial to evaluating what is taking place.  Dune Lawrence addressed ICE in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek: Trump Refuses to Release Data on Immigration Crackdown.  He introduces his piece with this lede.

“ICE’s disappearing records make it difficult to examine whether reality meets the president’s rhetoric.”

Lawrence provides this background related to immigration-related actions initiated by Trump.

“The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency promised to put out weekly updates that would include information on localities that release immigration violators and the criminal records of those released.”

“The first reports were filled with inaccuracies and in several instances called out counties for not cooperating with detainer, or detention, requests that were actually sent to other places with similar names. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had to issue a list of corrections, and soon it simply stopped putting out the reports. For the past 18 months, ICE has also refused to release other key data about its enforcement activity that had been routinely available.”

“This disappearing data is at the heart of two lawsuits brought against ICE by the
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a small research group at Syracuse University. As of January 2017, ICE stopped handing over records it had provided under the Freedom of Information Act for years, including any details about how effective Trump’s crackdown has been.”

Hiding data that might be inconvenient is becoming standard practice for the Trump administration, but the legal argument being made by ICE for not complying with TRAC’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests would, if approved by a court, effectively negate FOIA and allow government agencies to conduct their business without any public access to government records.

“ICE argues that many of the records TRAC has asked for don’t exist in the form requested and says producing responses would require searching its database, a process the agency claims amounts to creating new records, which isn’t required under FOIA.”

“ ‘If they’re going to court to try to keep information hidden about the detainer policy, they’re probably hiding something,’ says Peter Boogaard, a former DHS press secretary in the Obama administration. More broadly, transparency has become a function of political convenience, Boogaard says. ‘They’re happy to say that immigration is causing huge problems, but at the same point, they are not sharing information’.”

Trump and his minions are suspiciously desperate to obscure reality and to keep data from public view.  This is how people who are involved in illegal and unethical activities operate.

Osnos included in his article this warning—one we should heed.

“A White House that is intent on politicizing and falsifying information can achieve its objectives before other branches of government know enough to stop it.”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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