Friday, March 16, 2012

Secrecy and accountability at USAID

I went to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., today and attended a panel on whistleblowers and the press.
I want to learn more about accountability in the federal government as I continue to examine U.S.-government financed democracy programs in Cuba.
I don't get the sense that there is a great deal of accountability in the USAID and State Department programs in Cuba. Maybe there's internal accountability, but the agencies are not accountability to the public. They aren't accountable to taxpayers who pay the bills.
If there were accountability, USAID would have released more than a heavily redacted 10-page document when I requested the results of an audit that cost at least $1.47 million.
USAID cites important concerns, including the protection of USAID employees and contractors. But then the agency goes overboard in shielding from the public all but the most basic facts of USAID operations in Cuba.
There should be a middle ground, a greater level of accountability that helps American citizens better understand whether taxpayer-funded programs in Cuba are efficient and effective.
Government employees are understandably reluctant to talk to reporters about any shortcomings in their agencies. Talking to a journalist can be career suicide.
Whistleblowers have fewer protections than they did a decade ago, panelists said during the discussion today at the Newseum today.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said a member of the intelligence community told her that U.S. authorities no longer need reporters to find out who in the government is leaking sensitive information or talking to the press. That's because they can easily extract the information they need in other ways - presumably hacking into email accounts and phone records.
That means reporters, whistleblowers and government sources must avoid electronic communication when discussing sensitive topics. Big Brother just might be listening.
Friday's panel discussion took place on the Newseum's Freedom Forum FOI Day.
FOI is short for Freedom of Information. The FOI Act is an essential tool that citizens can use to better understand the workings of the government.
I have sent USAID and the State Department more than 100 FOIA requests to try to learn more about democracy programs in Cuba. I have not made much headway so far, but plan another wave of FOIA requests in the next few months.


Abbe Lowell

The panel was entitled, "Whistleblowers & the Press: Roles and Risks in Divulging Information Needed for Accountable Government." Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, gave a few opening remarks.

The panelists were:
  • Gary J. Aguirre, former investigator with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and whistleblower; currently represents other SEC whistleblowers
  • Tom Bowman, National Public Radio (NPR) National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon
  • Mark Cohen, Deputy Special Counsel, Office of Special Counsel, and former Executive Director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP)
  • Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press(RCFP); RCFP provides free legal advice, resources, support and advocacy to protect the First Amendment and Freedom of Information rights of journalists
  • Matthew Miller, Partner at Vianovo, and former Director of the Office Public Affairs for the Department of Justice
The panel moderator was Abbe Lowell, a partner at Chadbourne & Parke LLC. He "has defended several high profile defendants charged with violating the Espionage Act by trafficking in government secrets," the panel description said.

Gary J. Aguirre

Lucy Dalglish and Tom Bowman



Matthew Miller


Tom Bowman, left, and Mark Cohen


Ken Paulson, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors


Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association

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