Washington's hunger to know everything about its citizens seems to be matched only by its reticence in revealing its own activities to its citizens.
This was true of George W. Bush, and it is no less true of his successor, Barack Obama. At first, Obama promised reform. As a candidate, he criticized the Bush administration's "none of your business" approach toward public inquiries into government decisions. And as a new president, Obama proposed to dramatically open up the process and to let transparency be the norm.
Yet, as his "information czar," Obama chose his friend Cass Sunstein -- a Harvard professor who seemed less interested in fostering debate than in suppressing it. In fact, while in academia, Sunstein had written a controversial paper calling for government agents to "cognitively infiltrate" Internet chat rooms to discourage speculation about "conspiracies."
One consequence of this desire to discourage dark thoughts about power is seen in the Obama Administration's foot-dragging on the release of JFK assassination records in the months and years approaching the 50th anniversary of that event. The Obama administration even put a CIA person with ties to that agency's disastrous 9/11 intelligence in charge of the overall document declassification process.
At WhoWhatWhy, we wrote on several occasions about Sunstein and the Orwellian double sword of a disclosure mandate that worked against disclosure. Sunstein attracted his share of criticism, and in the summer of 2012, as Obama was trying to rally his base for the re-election campaign, the "czar" quietly left the administration. But even with Sunstein gone, the Administration continues to delay declassifying key JFK assassination documents.
But there is more.
The latest move to prevent us from knowing what is going on relates to so-called transparency policies whose fine print instead does the opposite -- by effectively blunting the stated intent of the regulations.
Meet "The Mosaic Effect"
The new policy is presented as an entirely forward-looking one. Government agencies are ordered to make life easier for those seeking federal data, by releasing it in a form that makes it easier to analyze it. And that, of course, sounds great.
But buried in the middle of a section on "definitions" is something that most might miss -- and that might turn out to be the real purpose of the new policy. It reminds us of how vigilant you need to be in reading notices from all manner of institutions -- whether your bank or your power company -- on changed terms and conditions.
The suspect phrase refers to something called "the mosaic effect." Government officials are told that they must consider this "effect" when deciding what to release and what to withhold.
"The mosaic effect occurs when the information in an individual dataset, in isolation, may not pose a risk of identifying an individual (or threatening some other important interest such as security), but when combined with other available information, could pose such risk.
"Before disclosing potential personally identifiable information (PII) or other potentially sensitive information, agencies must consider other publicly available data -- in any medium and from any source -- to determine whether some combination of existing data and the data intended to be publicly released could allow for the identification of an individual or pose another security concern."
Get Those Black Markers Out
Is this an ominous development? You bet your black marker.
Have you ever seen documents released in redacted form, i.e., with certain names blocked out? Well, under the new rules, someone inside the government could argue that certain documents ought not to be released because someone outside the government, using other information sources, could put two and two together and figure out the information that was blocked out.