Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A final note on going 'off the record'

In my post the other week regarding Senate staffer Joe Goffman's attempt to unilaterally go "off the record" during a recent panel discussion before hundreds of people, I referred to another instance where a congressional aide at another public forum likewise inexplicably tried to take her banal remarks off the record -- as the event was being recorded for broadcast on the Internet.

At a congressional briefing hosted this past December by the Energy and Environmental Study Institute (EESI), Marci Harris, an aide to Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA), opened the question-and-answer session by declaring that her remark -- that lawmakers would be losing an "enormous opportunity" if they chose to return carbon tax revenues directly to the public, ala the proposal favored by NASA's Jim Hansen, rather than using them to subsidize "clean" energies -- should be considered "off the record" by those in the professional media.

If you go to EESI's website to watch the video (Harris' comments start a little after the 1 hour and 48 minute mark), however, you'll find that the staffer's hilarious-in-its-arrogance attempt to go off the record in the middle of a public event is in fact the only aspect of her comments that was expunged from the record -- possibly to save her the embarrassment. To EESI's credit, the rest of Harris' comments are available in their mundane entirety.

Again, congressional staff: uttering "off the record" anytime you please and expecting reporters to dutifully comply is not how it works, and the ghost of Edward R. Murrow will not come down and smite any uppity journalist who dares report what you say. How comments are to be attributed is something that must be cleared before you speak, and can only be granted by the press. Going off the record at an event open to the public is never justified -- not when one is speaking on a panel, and least of all when one is merely in the audience asking a question.

Still, there is some value in the attempt by clueless congressional staff going "off the record" at public forums: it exposes how completely unjustified most attempts to conceal information are here in Washington. Remember that the next time the Obama administration invokes the so-called "state secrets" doctrine (a doctrine nowhere to be found in the U.S. constitution) to block the release of politically sensitive information under the auspices of "protecting national security," as it has in an attempt to stop lawsuits challenging the NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

Quite often the U.S. government classifies information for no discernible reason other than that it can, hiding information from the public being the standard modus operandi rather than the exception. When national security is invoked, it's usually less because the U.S. homeland needs protection than it is the political establishment's collective backside. The very case establishing the state secrets doctrine, United States v. Reynolds, after all, was based on the lie that divulging information regarding the 1948 crash of an Air Force plane that killed several defense contractors would have harmed national security; documents declassified in 2000 show the only thing that would have been harmed by the information would've been the careers of a few Pentagon officials.

When some Senate staffer seeks to forbid the press from reporting their comments, they're usually but stroking their own ego; when a federal official seeks to do the same through classification, assume there's some criminal wrongdoing being covered up.

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