New Obama Disclosure Block

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Washington’s hunger to know everything about its citizens seems to be matched only by its reticence in revealing its own activities to its citizens.

This was true of George W. Bush, and it is no less true of his successor, Barack Obama. At first, Obama promised reform. As a candidate, he criticized the Bush administration’s “none of your business” approach toward public inquiries into government decisions. And as a new president, Obama proposed to dramatically open up the process and to let transparency be the norm.

Yet, as his “information czar,” Obama chose his friend Cass Sunstein—a Harvard professor who seemed less interested in fostering debate than in suppressing it. In fact, while in academia, Sunstein had  written a controversial paper calling for government agents to “cognitively infiltrate” Internet chat rooms to discourage speculation about “conspiracies.”

One consequence of this desire to discourage dark thoughts about power is seen in the Obama Administration’s foot-dragging on the release of JFK assassination records in the months and years approaching  the 50th anniversary of that event. The Obama administration even put a CIA person with ties to that agency’s disastrous 9/11 intelligence in charge of the overall document declassification process.

At WhoWhatWhy, we wrote on several occasions about Sunstein and the Orwellian double sword of a disclosure mandate that worked against disclosure. Sunstein attracted his share of criticism, and in the summer of 2012, as Obama was trying to rally his base for the re-election campaign, the “czar” quietly left the administration. But even with Sunstein gone, the Administration continues to delay declassifying key JFK assassination documents.

But there is more.

The latest move to prevent us from knowing what is going on relates to so-called transparency policies whose fine print instead does the opposite—by effectively blunting the stated intent of the regulations.

Meet “The Mosaic Effect”

The new policy is presented as an entirely forward-looking one. Government agencies are ordered to make life easier for those seeking federal data, by releasing it in a form that makes it easier to analyze it. And that, of course, sounds great.

But buried in the middle of a section on “definitions” is something that most might miss—and that might turn out to be the real purpose of the new policy. It reminds us of how vigilant you need to be in reading notices from all manner of institutions—whether your bank or your power company—on changed terms and conditions.

The suspect phrase refers to something called “the mosaic effect.” Government officials are told that they must consider this “effect” when deciding what to release and what to withhold.

The mosaic effect occurs when the information in an individual dataset, in isolation, may not pose a risk of identifying an individual (or threatening some other important interest such as security), but when combined with other available information, could pose such risk.

Before disclosing potential personally identifiable information (PII) or other potentially sensitive information, agencies must consider other publicly available data – in any medium and from any source – to determine whether some combination of existing data and the data intended to be publicly released could allow for the identification of an individual or pose another security concern.”

Get Those Black Markers Out

Is this an ominous development? You bet your black marker.

Have you ever seen documents released in redacted form, i.e., with certain names blocked out? Well, under the new rules, someone inside the government could argue that certain documents ought not to be released because someone outside the government, using other information sources, could put two and two together and figure out the information that was blocked out.

The result? Documents that were previously released, either in full or in redacted form, might now never see the light of day.

Let’s imagine that, say, the government’s failure to release documents related to the JFK assassination rouses public anger to such a pitch that media pressure (this really takes imagination) finally forces the government to consider opening up the fifty-year-old files to public scrutiny, with names and other identifying info blacked out, purportedly to protect “sources and methods” from half a century ago.

But wait — under the newly articulated Mosaic Doctrine, if there is even the remotest chance that some enterprising citizen or sleuth could use the unredacted material, along with other information already available, to figure out some of those names, a bureaucrat could simply withhold all the information.

Indeed, government officials could pretty much withhold anything they wanted to.

Is this progress? Are we glad that the forces of “change” are now in charge?

Not so much.

The Homeland Security Mosaic

This latest development came to our attention via the IRE Journal, the magazine of the national organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, of which WhoWhatWhy is a member. (That article is not linkable.)

But what the fine article in the IRE Journal did not point out is who exactly is behind this little clause—and what it might actually be about. The people nominally in charge of transparency are the folks at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is part of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. But was this clause their idea?

The answer can be teased out of the following paper, which we found at Data.Gov, an official government site whose motto is “empowering people”.

The title of the paper is “National/Homeland Security and Privacy/Confidentiality Checklist and Guidance,” and the key paragraphs are:

The Open Government Initiative Privacy and Security Working Group (“Working Group”) is an interagency group led by the National Security Staff. The Working Group is composed of Executive Branch agencies with specialization in the security and privacy realms. It developed the screening procedures outlined in this document to help reduce the risk associated with the mosaic effect, in which datasets that pose no disclosure threat by themselves can create a national/homeland security concern or produce identifiable information when combined with other datasets. This is of particular concern for datasets available in formats that are conducive to mash-ups, as are the datasets at sites such as Data.gov.

The Working Group will continue to evaluate, and where appropriate, enhance Federal data dissemination guidelines to guard against intentional and unintentional unmasking of sensitive or personally identifiable information and/or national/homeland security-sensitive information. As additional opportunities to enhance policies and procedures for evaluating datasets for mosaic effect concerns are developed, agency training will be provided.

What is the possibility that the same agencies which are increasingly conducting surveillance of American citizens are sympathetic to our privacy concerns? That these agencies want to urge caution in the release of documents so that the public is protected?

Isn’t it more likely that they would act instead in a way consistent with defending their own interests, as demonstrated over not just years but decades? That is, collect as much information as possible, and tell the public as little as possible.

We’ve been asked for an awfully long time to accept on faith that these people are looking out for our safety. But when the end of the Cold War brought no more transparency to Washington’s behavior, thoughtful folks began to wonder. Two decades later, the question remains: whose interests, really, are being protected under the current system?

***

To get some answers, I did what every concerned citizen in an open democracy is free to do: I called Washington. I spoke to a fellow named Jamal at the Office of Management and Budget, who suggested I send an email. So I did:

To: FN-OMB-Communications Office
Subject: Media Inquiry

Jamal,

I wonder if someone can speak to me—phone or email—about information policy? I’m particularly interested in administration guidelines mandating that governmental agencies release data in a form that is easily usable by the public and media. Am also interested in learning more about the Open Government Initiative Privacy and Security Working Group.

Best,

Russ Baker

Editor-in-Chief, WhoWhatWhy

To this, I got the following super fast reply from another staffer, named Ari:

Hi Russ,

On background, please see http://whitehouse.gov/open and http://whitehouse.gov/digitalgov .

Warm regards,
Ari

This pretty much blew my mind, because Ari was using the journalistic term “on background”—which typically refers to confidential material being provided to journalists in return for their not identifying the source. But here Ari was invoking it for links to publicly available material. I wrote Ari back, asking him if this was some kind of joke.

He wrote me right back, not to address my question, but to ask me how he might help.

Hi Russ – if you have specific questions that aren’t addressed by the policies on those pages, feel free to send them over. Thanks !

I replied to ask whose idea it was to frame the “mosaic effect.”

That was July 25. And I have not heard back.

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20 responses to “New Obama Disclosure Block”

  1. Title

    […]always a huge fan of linking to bloggers that I appreciate but do not get a whole lot of link love from[…]

  2. Bruce Nevin says:

    It’s possible that your correspondent Ari was ignorant of the technical meaning of “on background” in journalism, and that he intended “on [the background] of [the matters you asked about]”. Of course, if you explained why you thought it might be a joke, then your more nefarious interpretation seems inevitable.

  3. ignasi says:

    ÀNIMS,la censura i els secrets son la repressió invisible que encadena la Veritat que la ciutadania necessita per viure en Pau.
    Que tingui un dia agradable amb moltes rialles.

  4. leveymg says:

    Hi, Russ –

    Very interesting catch on the “Mosaic Effect.” Looks like the sort of thing that Steven Aftergood would be interested in: Secrecy News Blog: http://blogs.fas.org/secrecy/

    BTW: the bit in this piece about the double-talk emails from the underlings to the Personal Assistant to the Special Assistant to the Undersecretary is priceless. ;-)

  5. Whiznot says:

    Conspiring to deny conspiracies isn’t an original idea of Sunstein’s. Leaders have used their flunkies in media to do that for as long as I can remember but, prior to Sunstein’s paper, no one has been stupid enough to acknowledge the activity.

  6. Rob says:

    So now they are going to redact Peter’s name to protect Paul’s. How long before they will need a whole new department for keeping track of all the daisy chains of redactions just to make sure they haven’t missed anyone or anything? It seems like the only logical conclusion to all of these additional “security measures” will be to redact everything and just go for total secrecy all the time. After all, if some people can put 2 and 2 together, how about 3 and 3?

    It seems that the whole edifice of national security is built on perpetuating a myth of openness so that secrecy can be maintained. All for the good of the public of course. As long as the public believes that information is freely available that doesn’t jeopardize national security, then keeping secrets is perfectly okay. The point being, that this new measure makes it more difficult to maintain the myth of openness and to keep the trust of the public intact. Make too many redactions, and they risk giving the impression that they are hiding too much. Then the myth of openness is destroyed and the public’s trust that the national security state is keeping only the right kind of secrets is gone with it.

    So what seems negative could really be a positive in how it puts the government in an increasingly impossible position of trying to maintain the illusion of openness while at the same time going to ever greater lengths to cover its tracks. My take on this is that the tangled web the government is weaving is getting easier to see through the thicker it gets. It’s a paradox from which it can no longer escape.

    So you can take measures like these as a sign you must be getting the better of them Russ! Why else would they try something so stupid and desperate?

  7. Lawrence Schnapf says:

    Very simple question- If there was no conspiracy involving the JFK assassination, then what are the national security grounds or the “mosaic effect” for holding back the records? The likely answer is that release of the info would expose involvement by the anti-castro cubans/mafia who had been working with the CIA at the time of the assassination to try to get Castro. Oswald’s trip to Mexico City would have caused four secret CIA spying operations to be exposed. Understandable why LBJ and even RFK would have wanted to keep this all secret back in 1963. But in 2013?

  8. Dynamo says:

    What? A big private company – one with a board of former CIA, FBI and Pentagon officials; one in charge of protecting Nuclear-Weapons facilities, nuclear reactors, the Alaskan oil pipeline and more than a dozen American embassies abroad; one with long-standing ties to a radical ring-wing organization; one with 30,000 men and women under arms – secretly helped IRAQ in its effort to obtain sophisticated weapons?
    http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/esp_sociopol_wackenhut06.htm

  9. Dynamo says:

    In 1951, Wackenhut joined the FBI as a special agent in Indianapolis and Atlanta. George Wackenhut was known as a hard-line right-winger. By 1965, Wackenhut was boasting to potential investors that the company maintained files on 2.5 million suspected dissidents – one in 46 American adults then living. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G

  10. Frank von Winkhorst says:

    Is there anyone left on the entire planet who believes a word that Omama says?

  11. murph says:

    sounds i lttle like the dea’s “parallel constrution” where they don’t want the public to 2 and 2 together in retrospect

  12. Joe says:

    I hope you’re following up!

  13. onedavide says:

    Russ, you didn’t know obama was going to surprise us today; huh? Although not much new, just that he trusts the snooping programs, so we should to. Guess it shows he’s not totally clueless.
    How can we make it clear to him if he truly wants to be above board > this 50th year is the perfect time to let it all hang out, cut the losses, release those remaining documents…maybe in some form similar to South Africa’s truth & reconciliation commission. Thats a legacy he could leave! He’s appointing Caroline ambassador to Japan, now go ahead and make her dad proud of ya! JFK was willing to put it ALL on the line for the policies he believed in, as evidenced by how he changed, what he did/ supported from the missile crisis until the end.

    • onedavide says:

      maybe thats what he was pow wowing about w/daddy bush…telling him to buckle up? jus kiddin!

    • nweastcoaster says:

      The President won’t put it on the line because he would rather see his daughters grow up to be adults. He also wants to do some large living from those profitable corporate boardships he’ll receive and speechmaking on the rubber chicken circuit post presidency for all the protection and promotion he’s given the “power centers”.

  14. COTO says:

    As a thirty year researcher in the surveillance state, going back to Promis/Inslaw, there is a dynamic happening where activists for transparent govt. or privacy issues will become targets. It is not paranoia unwarranted. The record of this administration in FOIA is worse than ever to previous administrations. Mosaic seems to be the technology or policy that insures quantity without quality.

    I’m certain the NSA have algorithms for the data they are collecting on American citizens that use an enhanced mosaic to determine the risk and the safety of ‘the people’ which translate to the state and the continued repugnant secrecy JFK eluded to before he was blacked out.

  15. SO says:

    It seems that the “mosaic effect” is all we have to go on, since they won’t tell us anything. According to my analysis, employing the mosaic effect, JFK was shot by a guy on the bridge, a man known as “Dark Complected Man,” William Greer and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, under the direction of Rip Robertson, and his presumed boss, George Herbert Walker Bush. Perhaps “our” government should stop worrying about the mosaic effect, and just tell us what happened.

  16. Andey says:

    Sounds like we’ve just entered the twilight zone, where government officials can define reality to whatever suits them.

  17. sfulmer says:

    A better joke would have been for “Ari” to have used the name “Juan”, because when it comes to illustrating the “mosaic effect”, we all know that if you’ve seen “Juan”, you’ve seen “Jamal”.

  18. SO says:

    We don’t elect presidents. We elect imperial consuls. Wikipedia: “…after the establishment of the Empire, the consuls were merely a figurative representative of Rome’s republican heritage and held very little power and authority, with the Emperor acting as the supreme leader.”