Friday, November 5, 2010

Not Surprised...

I'm not surprised by the number of secrets held by the government, but was kind of surprised The Washington Post was devoting so much energy to uncovering them. Don't get me wrong, I'm "bleeding hearted" when it comes to politics and especially "The Man" -- but, seriously, what are they hoping to find? I agree it's all creepy and too widespread to make anyone comfortable, but doesn't the United States government have to keep things under wraps in order to protect itself and its citizens (hopefully)? I know this is all related to the "war on terror," but I'm left feeling conflicted here (and feeling a little too conservative and it's starting to itch). Someone please jump in here and tell me this is more insane than I'm making it out to be.

Also, here is the longer video from Frontline on The Washington Post's investigation (embedded for your clickless pleasure -- I found it under resources):

What REALLY made me mad was what was presented in the Jacobs, Jacobs, Yeo article: Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. 
I was in shock that the authors had to suggest, TO THE GPO, these simple guidelines in their efforts to make their digital documents available to the public:

We envision an FDLP of the future described by the following five criteria:
1. Information is available and fully functional to all without charge.
2. Information is easy to find and use.
3. Information is verifiably authentic.
4. Information is preserved for future access and use in a distributed system of
digital depository libraries.
5. Privacy of information-users is ensured so that citizens can freely use government information without concern that what they read will be subject to disclosure or examination.

For real?!?! This is kind of pathetic -- they need to be told to allow for these common sense provisions? Their business model for providing access to their digital content is entirely vague and not moving forward. They want to allow free access but have users pay for it at the same time? They need to seriously get their act together. It's just embarrassing and sad. And obvious to me they are just playing the "dum-dum" card, because they don't want to make decisions. Ugh.


  1. Thanks, Mel, for linking the Frontline piece above - very interesting.

    I don't know where to begin with my blog post. I'm troubled on a couple levels so I apologize in advance for my rambling.

    1) I wish I could say I'm surprised by the explosion of anti-terrorist "businesses" and apparent waste instituted by the government and sub-contractors on the government's behalf. We seem to be a culture that prizes excess and solutions based on throwing money at problems to see if it "sticks" and fixes things. I find similarity here to our public education system, where student per capita spending increases yet student performance declines. Shame on those taking advantage of the tragedy of 9/11 to line their pockets! Who's going to argue or put up a fight when our personal and national safety are apparently at stake? Of course, we've been in the dark all along, I guess.

    2) I must admit I'm more than a little confused about the directions our class has traveled. We've briefly examined and blogged about the issues of the homeless, the newspaper industry on life support, and government secrecy. It's been interesting but ...

    Has the government/media/etc. dropped the ball on information ethics? Yeah, probably. I guess I could get angry, but I think it's probably more productive to go back to my public library world and make sure that my library continues to remain transparent, complies with statutes and regulations, and honors the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.

  2. Mel - I always appreciate it when students are able to express their own personal conflict or torn feelings on issues or topics. It's often the case that we have to constantly evaluate our stances when confronted with information that challenges it. Also, in this class we're dealing not only with personal takes on issues, but how we go about dealing with the issues in our professional contexts. As we've seen, we might find ourselves in complete discord in personal vs. professional life.

    With regard to the Washington Post series, I think one key point is not simply that there is a lot of "secret" work going on, but a. simply the amazing amount of _information_ production that is underway and b. how much of that is in private (read: non-governmental, yet affiliated) hands. The latter issue goes to questions of transparency and accountability for the general public. It's one thing to file a FOIA against a government agency - hard enough, that is. What happens now, when so much government-like work is out of the hands of the government?

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  4. Kathy - I just typed up a response, but it ended up taking on a life of its own and was too long to fit as a comment! I'll post under a separate entry.

  5. Thanks for clarifying, Sarah. This is what I was missing: b. how much of that is in private (read: non-governmental, yet affiliated) hands

    I wrongly assumed that all those dots on the maps were governmental agencies, but looking back, those blue dots were definitely private corporations. Including one that is in Johnson Creek, WI:
    (It terrifies me how vague and bad this website is. The government is putting recruitment (apparently) into their hands? Eeek.

  6. Kathy, I share a similar sentiment with you on your final point, that sometimes the best we can do is go back to our places of employment, our homes, our schools, and to do our best to uphold the values of information ethics that we know are important and even vital to a fully functional society.

    A quote I jotted down from the Jacobs, Jacobs & Yeo (2005) article reads, "Ceding responsibility and control of such information to those who must be held accountable with that information is unwise...Libraries will abrogate that responsibility [to provide long-term access to and organization of that information] to others at peril, not just to their own continuted relevance, but to democracy itself."

    Right there we have it; we need to be sticking with it, even when - as you stated - government and media seem to drop the ball on information ethics.

    That's why it never ceases to amaze/shock/petrify me when people's response to my career choice is, "Do people actually even use libraries anymore? We can just find everything on the Internet." [Direct quote from someone with whom I spoke a week ago] How dangerously undervalued libraries are in a free democratic society; *sigh, if only people knew...

  7. Mel, your first point is well-taken. To me, the issue was not so much "what are they hoping to find," but just that there is something big going on in the government and it's probably a good idea to explain some of this to the public. There was one part of the site ("A note on this project") where the Post said they had shown the web site to government officials and some changes were made based on feedback. I'll bet there were some arguments in the newsroom about that -- part of me thinks they shouldn't have done that, but based on the nature of this topic, it was responsible.

    It's interesting to compare this huge journalistic undertaking of "Top Secret America" with the discussion dissecting the press releases in the "Airbrushing History" article. I admire Althaus and Leetaru for their thoroughness and clear explanations. And although they were critical of the G.W. Bush administration, I'm sure this type of thing has happened in most administrations. (And is probably still happening, as much as I hate to say it.) It's another example of the importance of constantly digging and attempting to find the truth. Just what can we trust? Not much, it seems -- we'll all do the best we can.

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  9. "It's one thing to file a FOIA against a government agency - hard enough, that is. What happens now, when so much government-like work is out of the hands of the government?"

    This is an interesting question. The quick and obvious answer is that the work of these non-governmental, yet affiliated agencies remains secret. In addition to private companies and individuals, FOIA exemptions already exist for anything dealing with national security, which all of these Top Secret America operations seem to have something to do with.

    My knee-jerk reaction is to have FOIA amended so that these non-governmental agencies be subject to at least some of its provisions, but where does that begin and end? Even then, the national security exemption would probably still trump all.