Government agencies have something to hide | EDITORIAL

More material for the big case on public agencies trying to keep taxpayers in the dark:

The ACLU of Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the city of Fresno over a measure passed in February making it harder for watchdogs to observe authorities’ efforts to dismantle homeless camps. The change allows the city to erect barriers around encampments and prohibits anyone from crossing them without permission.

“Advocates, journalists and ordinary citizens simply wishing to document the city’s actions sometimes come to the rescue,” reports Reason magazine. “The ACLU NorCal’s complaint says this order punishes people who engage in ‘defense, speech, expressive conduct, and association’ during camp sweeps and protects the government from liability in the event of wrongdoing.”

Meanwhile, NBC News reported this week that US Customs and Border Protection has purchased an app that allows officers to automatically delete messages. According to public procurement records, the agency has spent $1.6 million since 2020 on Wickr, an Amazon-based crypto messaging platform.

NBC revealed that the records manager for the National Archives and Records Administration sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security requesting information “about the agency-wide rollout of a messaging app with this functionality without appropriate policies and procedures governing its use”.

NBC reported that “the app’s auto-delete feature has made the platform a source of concern for government officials, as well as external watchdogs, who fear that Wickr and other similar apps may create ways for customs officials to circumvent government transparency requirements.”

Customs and Border Protection officials did not even respond to a request from a Freedom of Information Act watchdog group for the agency’s records regarding the service, the network reported. Legal action against the agency is currently underway.

When caught trying to operate in secret, government officials often argue that they cannot be burdened with transparency requirements. The idea that “personnel matters” should be kept private is also a typical dodge.

In reality, however, public officials in both of these examples seek to minimize potential embarrassment at the expense of accountability. What do Fresno officials have to hide when they dismantle a homeless camp? Why do Border Patrol agents have to delete messages?

Secrecy and obscurity are incubators for corruption and malfeasance. They also remain the default setting for far too many officials, from DC to local municipalities.

Ashley C. Reynolds