The Multinational Monitor


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Keeping Secrets

Reagan's War on Government Information

by Harry Lewis

Despite the Iran-Contra credibility morass, the Libyan disinformation campaign, and the Grenada information blackout, some of the most ominous aspects of Ronald Reagan's information policy are the least known. For almost seven years, Reagan has waged a relentless battle against the free flow of government information: from debilitating budget cuts, to the Paperwork Reduction Act, to wholesale give-aways of agency information databanks to private corporations, to attacks on the Freedom of Information Act.

Since the Reagan inauguration, 25 percent of the vast federal inventory of government publications available through the Government Printing Office (GPO) have been eliminated. Over 4,000 publications containing vital information on infant care, women's health, brown-lung disease, consumer advice, occupational health and safety, and the environment were discontinued or destroyed, including Carcinogens in the Environment, Public Opinion on Environmental Issues, Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy, Project Identification: A Study of Hand Guns Used in Crime, Elderly and Handicapped Transportation: Local Government Approaches, Drugs and Highway Safety, Poison Prevention Packaging: What Pharmacists Should Know, The Car Book andAir Pollution Damages Trees. Although some publications are available through the National Technical Information Service, the prices are double or triple those at the GPO.

It isn't difficult for even the casual observer to perceive a pattern of politically motivated actions in the Reagan administration's information policy. Materials that run counter to the Reagan political agenda have disappeared. The Car Book, a government sponsored consumer reference and buying guide which rated safety standards and maintenance costs for new cars, was discontinued in 1982. Then Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis dismissed the publication as "anti-industry." Similarly, 50,000 copies of a government publication designed to educate workers about the dangers of cotton dust and brown lung disease were destroyed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Thorne Auchter, then head of the agency, was reported to have acted in response to industry complaints about the publication. He also expressed concern that the cover photo of an afflicted worker was too sympathetic to victims of brown lung disease.

Reagan's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the primary motivating force in the wholesale dismantling of the "federal information trust." The OMB wields the power of review over all federal agency publications. To be approved, says Sharon Kanareff of OMB, the publication must "be necessary for the mission of the agency." Publications that don't conform to Reagan's political philosophy rarely meet this test.

Information programs have also suffered. In speaking before a group of students last year Reagan remarked that the problem of hunger in America was caused by "a lack of knowledge" on where to seek help. According to Judy DePontbriand, of the Physicians Task Force on Hunger in America, however, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 prohibited the use of food stamp money to inform people about the food stamp program. In addition, according to DePontbriand, food stamp forms written in Spanish have disappeared.

Information on important social trends in society is also considered fair game to an administration now famous for denying embarrassing social realities. The 1990 Decennial Census, for example, will contain approximately 30 fewer questions if the OMB gets its way. The OMB has cited the Paperwork Reduction Act in attempting to justify the elimination of questions concerned with housing, employment, income, and migration patterns. This action could reduce the information necessary for the planning and formulation of social policy, both locally and nationally, for the next 15 years. Without data derived from the census, said Michael Jackson of the National League of Cities in testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, "trends in unemployment, housing, population shifts, transportation, and energy consumption would be nearly impossible to track." Jackson says "this would adversely impact both the ability of the federal government to target scarce resources, as well as the ability of municipal governments to work with the private sector." Data on migration patterns, for example, have important implications for school and health care systems, social services delivery, training and employment programs, and housing. According to Jackson, "the proposed elimination of these census questions and the potential loss of invaluable data would have the effect of blinding us in our most important capacity of serving the public."

Budget cuts have been blamed for the reduction or elimination of various congressional committee hearing reports and published transcripts. The published Senate Armed Services Committee Authorization Hearing transcripts for fiscal year 1987, for example, have been edited down from 12 to 4 volumes. Eliminated from the published transcripts are hearings on tactical warfare, acquisition policy, naval matters, military manpower, and strategic weaponry. The eight unpublished volumes are available exclusively at the Committee office in Washington, D.C. Since photocopying is prohibited, a note pad and pencil are the only way to record the information contained in the 20,000 page transcript.

The Reagan administration is also attempting to pioneer new techniques in denying public access to a broad range of unclassified government information termed "sensitive." This latest category covers the gamut of unclassified information "the disclosure, loss, misuse, alteration, or destruction of which could adversely affect national security or other Federal Government interests." Of particular note is the meaning of other governmental interests, officially defined as those "related, but not limited to the wide range of government-derived economic, human, financial, industrial, agricultural, technological, and law enforcement information." This broad spectrum is apparently aimed at denying foreign commercial competitors and governments access to public and private data sources. B ut the effect is to deny this information to the same citizens whose tax dollars have paid for it.

There are currently reports of National Security Agency and CIA visits to commercial data base firms for purposes of monitoring and restricting access to what they consider sensitive information. Even Nexis, a commercial database which indexes and stores news stories, was approached to discuss ways of monitoring users of the system.

Fundamental to Reagan's information policy is the concept of "maximum feasible reliance on the private sector" as well as the imposition of user fees in the dissemination of government information products and services. The administration believes, quite simply, that private enterprise should assume the activities of the government whenever feasible. According to the OMB, "information is not a free good but a resource of substantial value."

Federal agency databases have been early targets for privatization. Using the administration's policy as a chance to cash-in on the great national information give-away, private companies are moving to acquire the rights to agency databases.

One private data base already in operation is the Electronic Dissemination of Information (EDI system at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Considered by OMB as a prototype, EDI is owned and maintained by Martin Marietta Data Systems (MMDS). The database maintains and disseminates data compiled by the USDA, at taxpayer expense, including crop reports, press releases, food and nutrition data, agricultural trade data, market reports, and economic and statistical information.

According to Stan Prochaska of USDA, the agency pays Martin Marietta Data Systems to take this information. What's more, according to Prochaska, Martin Marietta actually sells this information back to the USDA whenever access by the agency is required.

MMDS makes the data available to the public by way of its own computer network. Users who wish to obtain information from EDI must pay a fee of $150 per month plus the cost of the special electronic hardware, as well as the 2 to 5 cent per line charge and the long distance and connection charges. This arrangement has led to a lucrative secondhand market of commercial data base operators who purchase USDA information from EDI and sell it to the public.

Although USDA information is still available in paper copy to the network of 1,400 Federal Depository Libraries for free public access, the USDA hopes to eventually do away with paper altogether. Even today, a small time farmer, dependent on up-to-the-minute agricultural market and trade data reports, may only be able to obtain this U.S. government information for a stiff fee from a commercial vendor such as Dialcom, Data Resources, W.R.Grace & Co., Knight-Ridder or E.F. Hutton.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS), a clearinghouse for federally funded technical and scientific information, has also been targeted for privatization. NTIS, which is effectively self-supporting, makes tax-supported research available to citizen consumers at cost. Under a proposal by the Information Industry Association, NTIS would receive congressional appropriations for its information acquisition operations, and would turn over its product to private firms at a minimal cost for reproduction. These firms, in turn, would market this information at a substantial profit. Not only would the taxpayers' dollars have paid for the research and preparation of the data, they would also pay for a windfall subsidy to an enterprising industry.

The USDA and NTIS examples foreshadow what may be the dismantling of the federal information structure. Privatization of the vast data banks of agency information poses a direct threat to the concept of free and open access to government information. Charging user fees to access information collected and paid for with their own tax dollars not only imposes a double charge, but also discourages access by those with limited financial means. And should the enterprise fail, irreplaceable publicly financed information could be lost.

As Reagan prepares to squander the assets of the "public in formation trust" and closes down access to the information that remains, he may be jeopardizing a basic tenet of our democracy: that the citizenry be informed.

Harry Lewis is an attorney with the Center for the Study of Responsive Law and works to promote access to government information.

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