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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 65
March 1997

Liberating the Congressional Research Service

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress produces well regarded analyses of legislative and policy issues for members of Congress. It also adheres to an anachronistic secrecy policy that is ripe for reform.

Although CRS maintains thousands of its reports and issue briefs in electronic form on its world wide web site, that web site has been designed so as to prevent public access to its unclassified informational products.

One would have hoped that the Library of Congress would be at the forefront of new initiatives to break down old barriers and to promote public access to government information. It would seem desirable for the public and their representatives to operate from a common knowledge base, like that provided by the CRS electronic archive, particularly since its contents are neither classified nor otherwise privileged. Indeed, they are widely available in hard copy to Washington insiders and lobbyists.

To help fill the void created by the CRS non-disclosure policy, one organization called the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment has scanned and posted several hundred CRS reports on environmental topics on its website. The group even solicits financial contributions in order "to add new and updated CRS reports" to its collection.

But after the FAS Space Policy Project posted a dozen or so CRS publications with the CRS logo on the FAS web site, obtained with the assistance of a congressional staffer, a CRS official sent an email message to project director John Pike to complain. "While we are honored that you consider [these reports] worthy of such a posting, I need to point out that we work for the Congress and do not encourage such forms of dissemination beyond Congress," wrote Eric Fischer, Chief of the CRS Science Policy Research Division. "It is essential that we maintain our ability to serve the Congress well as an objective, non-partisan resource. We therefore cannot risk our products being falsely perceived as being associated with any outside organization, no matter how worthy."

Since the documents in question are not copyrighted and are in fact publicly releaseable, CRS could not ask that they be removed, but did ask that a disclaimer be added to indicate that the documents are posted "without CRS permission or cooperation," which has now been done.

There is little danger that anyone would perceive CRS as being affiliated with FAS, but if that is a real concern, then why doesn't CRS make its publications available itself, just as the General Accounting Office does?

"CRS is prohibited by law and congressional guidelines from directly making available most of its written products to non-congressional requesters," answered CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan.

Although individual CRS reports can be requested from congressional offices by members of the public who know enough to ask for them, "there are critical differences between public access through a congressional office and direct distribution of products by CRS," Mr. Mulhollan wrote in response to an S&GB query. "The latter process would change the fundamental mission of CRS," he asserted, "and would divert limited CRS resources from sole and direct service to the Congress."

But in fact, CRS could optimize its resources-- that is, maximize distribution while significantly reducing expenses for printing, handling and postage-- by allowing direct public access to the electronic database of CRS reports that is already made available to every congressional office.

CRS to Public: We Can't Help You

In further defense of the prohibition on direct public access to its products, CRS presented several arguments:

CRS reports and issue briefs are a unique resource that can help citizens comprehend the intellectual underpinnings of congressional decisionmaking. They encompass almost every topic of current policy importance in a relatively concise form. Unlike most of its peer competitors, CRS generally abstains from drawing specific conclusions about policy issues that are in dispute. Instead, its analyses carefully marshal the arguments pro and con, and invite the reader to decide for himself.

The electronic database of CRS reports on the world wide web has the additional virtue of being abundantly hyperlinked to current and pending legislation and congressional reports, rendering the "Thomas" legislative database https://thomas.loc.gov intelligible and useful to a significant new degree. The notion that this benign and beneficent electronic archive should be denied to the public remains baffling.

Sloppy Security Allows Public Access

CRS has imposed extraordinary security measures to prevent direct public access to its electronic database. One congressional staffer told S&GB that in order to gain remote entry to the CRS database from a computer that is outside of the congressional network, users must obtain a calculator-sized device that generates a new alphanumeric code every minute or two. The current code must be entered by the authorized user, along with a password, to access the system. "I could never make it work," he said.

But in a close examination of the electronic version of the CRS reports obtained from a congressional office, John Pike of FAS identified a link to the CRS electronic database that for some reason is not password protected, and which allows direct public access to the CRS database.

Selected portions of the database have now been downloaded for distribution to the public through the FAS website. None of this material is distribution limited. In theory, written copies of each of the reports could be requested from a congressional office at substantial cost to the government and with a delay of several weeks.

The reports have been posted in collections on Civil Space; Intelligence; Special Weapons Proliferation; and General National Security.

Needed: A Change in Access Policy

Although the public may benefit from CRS' slipshod security, this hardly represents a satisfactory foundation for government information policy. Enacting a sound policy would be even better than defeating an obsolete one.

FAS President Jeremy J. Stone added: "While much CRS material is justifiably considered proprietary, e.g. when it is done for a specific Congressman or group of Congressmen, material prepared for Congress as a whole, and available to all its staff, might just as well be considered public if CRS rules permit, as they do, that individual Congressmen provide this information to constituents."

"Under these circumstances, Congress should change the laws that govern CRS to reflect this reality and to bring the treatment of CRS reports into some consistency with the way the Freedom of Information Act treats material that has no reason to be kept from the public. Further, there is a special public interest in being able to monitor reports that play such a salient role in shaping congressional opinion because it would enhance informed public comment before relevant legislation is passed. Since CRS reports have been quasi-public for a long time, and found most reliable, we know they can stand up under this scrutiny in most cases and see no problem for CRS arising from this. In the meantime, FAS staff have been asked not to circumvent CRS procedures with electronic means that capture very large numbers of documents while FAS concentrates on urging on Congress a legislative solution to this issue."

The climate for such a solution seems relatively favorable. "I am committed to making all House documents available over the Internet as rapidly as possible," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI) of the House Oversight Committee on January 7. Though he did not refer specifically to CRS reports, he added that "I believe it absolutely essential that every document available in hard copy also be made available on the Internet at the same time or earlier than the hard copy is available. The Congress owes the public at least that much and preferably more."

Credibility of Official History Challenged Again

The government's official history of American foreign policy, the series known as Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), is becoming something of a national embarrassment, as the integrity of yet another volume of FRUS has come under scholarly assault for its failure to accurately represent American foreign policy from 35 years ago due to classification restrictions (see S&GB 64).

The particular volume in question-- FRUS, 1961-63, Volume XX: Congo Crisis-- "omitted vital information, suppressed details concerning US intervention, and generally provided a misleading account of the Congo crisis," wrote David N. Gibbs, a political scientist at the University of Arizona in a review entitled "Misrepresenting the Congo Crisis" (African Affairs: Journal of the Royal African Society, vol. 95, no. 380, pp. 453-459, 1996).

The Central Intelligence Agency invested large sums of money in its clandestine intervention in Congolese politics in 1960-61, attempted to assassinate the Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and played a significant role in engineering the election of his successor, Cyrille Adoula, noted Gibbs. "There can no longer be any question that the US intervention played a major and decisive role in the events of the Congo crisis; equally there can be little doubt that the subsequent history of the Congo/Zaïre has been significantly affected by their early intervention," he wrote. But you would never know this from the FRUS version of the historical record.

The review by Dr. Gibbs "is a very important one," said William Z. Slany, Historian of the State Department, which is responsible for producing the FRUS series. "It raises issues that FRUS and its advisory committee have got to come to terms with," he told S&GB. He noted that the Congo volume had been published without prior review by the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.

"We are deeply concerned about the quality of each and every volume of FRUS," said Advisory Committee Chair Warren F. Kimball. He observed that in the past the Committee has recommended publication of supplementary volumes "when new and important information comes to our attention. And if the [Congo] volume falls into that category," the Committee would once again do the same. He said this matter would be addressed at the March meeting of the Advisory Committee.

The recurring challenge facing FRUS is the unwillingness of the CIA to provide responsive documents, and to declassify many of the documents it provides. DCI Robert Gates first pledged to declassify records of old covert actions in a speech that he gave on February 21, 1992. DCI James Woolsey reiterated this commitment in testimony he delivered on Sept. 28, 1993, and specified eleven major covert actions (including the Congo) that would be processed for declassification. It didn't happen.

CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz recently conducted an investigation of CIA's failure to fulfill its declassification obligations, but his findings have not been approved for release to the public.

Public Favors Security, Questions Secrecy

A new survey of public opinion found that "overall support for security and counter-espionage measures has been quite strong. Only in terms of the classification of secrets does the majority favor the anti-security position." That is to say, a majority of the public believes "that too many documents are classified as secret," which is in reality a pro-security position, considering that excessive classification erodes the credibility of the system as a whole.

The survey was sponsored by the Department of Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) in Monterey, California, and represents an update of a similar survey performed in 1994.

A copy of the report-- Public Attitudes Towards Security and Counter-Espionage Matters-- is available at https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/perssur2.html.

Ghost of Commissions Past

The release of the report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, scheduled for March 4, provides an occasion to reflect on similar efforts in the past, and on the distance between recommending reform and achieving it.

"More might be gained than lost if our nation were to adopt-- unilaterally, if necessary-- a policy of complete openness in all areas of information...," according to the classic 1970 Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy, chaired by Frederick Seitz (available at https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/dsbrep.html. The Report offered cogent analysis and bold recommendations. And it had no discernable impact on official policy.

Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists. For further information, send email to Steven Aftergood

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the CS Fund, the New York Times Foundation, and the Greenville Foundation.

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