Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Too Big To Manage: Feds invoke 'privacy' to shield public employees while snooping on the rest of us

Even as Washington gets heat for snooping on ordinary Americans and warning them that they "have no reasonable expectation of privacy" on Healthcare.gov, federal officials are increasingly using the “personal privacy” exemption in the law to shield their employees from scrutiny, according to open government advocates.
Information about pay bonuses, disciplinary actions and severance packages are being withheld by federal agencies citing the personal privacy concerns of their employees.

That is in vivid contrast to the privacy warning buried in the source code for Healthcare.gov, according to the Weekly Standard.

"You have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system," the warning reads. It can only be seen by using a web browser's "View Source" function.
The section of the federal Freedom of Information Act intended solely to protect purely personal information like Social Security numbers, home addresses and medical records is now being used to shield government workers from accountability in their jobs, transparency advocates say.

“I do think there is increased reliance on exemptions for privacy,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group with extensive experience in FOIA litigation.

“They are just operating under the view that anything dealing with an individual employee is protected, and that goes way too far. It’s become the exception that is swallowing the rule,” Weismann said.

FOIA requires release of government documents unless they can be withheld under one of nine specific exemptions. Broad categories of records dealing with defense, intelligence, foreign affairs, law enforcement and national security are protected from disclosure.

The privacy exemption to FOIA allows agencies to keep secret “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Historically, things like names, titles, compensation and duty stations of government employees were considered public records.

But the broad and poorly defined privacy exemption has become a convenient catchall for bureaucrats who don't want to release information that would give the public a keener insight into agency operations, said Tom Fitton, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Judicial Watch, which has chalked up repeated court victories in FOIA disputes.

“It’s part of the secrecy tool chest that government agencies use to keep the public from knowing what the government is up to,” Fitton said.

“It’s absurd. It’s a new shield the government is using to protect itself from having to disclose embarrassing details in controversies, which is exactly what are government employees doing with the time we are paying for,” Fitton said.

After suspicions arose that Beyonce lip-synched the national anthem during President Obama's second inaugural address, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA seeking documents and prerecordings of her performance.  The Navy, with jurisdiction over the Marine band that played accompanying music, redacted the singer's name in its response, citing the privacy exemption to FOIA.

There are more serious examples as well. IRS officials cited privacy concerns in refusing to release details of the retirement and severance package of Lois Lerner, the official in charge of the tax agency's group that stalled applications for tax-exempt status from Tea Party, conservative and evangelical groups during the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.

During President George W. Bush's administration, the FBI refused to release records on Osama bin Laden, citing the privacy exemption in FOIA.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Energy are refusing to provide the Washington Examiner the names of agency employees released from their regular jobs to work for their unions, citing the privacy exemption in FOIA.

The Examiner appealed the decisions from those agencies. The appeal at Energy was rejected and the one at Homeland Security is still pending.  Read more--