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Bringing Government Secrets to Light

Most will never see the light of day.

It was late February 1970, and the federal government was concerned that bad things were afoot in New York City. The past decade had been a series of headaches for the feds—civil rights protests; bombings by the Weather Underground and other radicals; riots in slums, on college campuses, and at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Two Kennedys and Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

Now there was talk of letter carriers going on strike. Today, we might snicker at the notion that this was a big deal. So what if we don’t get our daily allotment of junk mail? But 45 years ago, the mail was no laughing matter. Huge amounts of personal and business correspondence (contracts, invoices, checks, etc.) flowed through the postal system. Back then, one depended on the mail, a service the government had provided for 200 years.

W.J. Cotter, the head of the postal police, was not going to let a mail strike happen. Drawing on techniques he’d garnered during stints at the FBI and CIA, Cotter ordered postal inspectors to work with local police, sheriffs, the FBI, and postmasters to gather intelligence on the agitators. Was this strike talk being fomented by pinkos or anarchists? Students for a Democratic Society had in the past egged on public-employee unions.

New York City letter carriers went on strike March 18, but not because they were “revolutionaries.” They were upset at their low pay and lousy working conditions. The military and National Guard triaged the situation by helping sort the mail, an effort given the oddly sinister-sounding moniker “Operation Graphic Hand.” A federal court made it clear the strike was illegal and threatened the unions with hefty fines. President Richard Nixon was eager to cut a deal, and within 10 days the matter was settled and the mail carriers were back to work. A year later, the Post Office Department was remade into the self-funding U.S. Postal Service, and employees got hefty pay raises.

The details of the government’s surveillance and military response remained mostly hidden until the website GovernmentAttic.org got the U.S. Army to release its secret reports. The site’s creators use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request documents that are locked away, which they digitize and post online. The enterprise is self-funded and has posted about 3,000 files since 2007, each of which contain innumerable pages of government information.

The trove includes materials that are grim (Port Authority records lost during the 9/11 attacks); eyebrow-raising (National Security Agency inspector general investigations); and odd (“Emails in selected Department of the Interior (DOI) offices that include the word ‘Choctaw,’ 2014-2015”). Elon Musk and other would-be space explorers might want to nab a copy of the Emergency Medical Procedures Manual for the International Space Station. Crime buffs can enjoy reams of records about medical fraud, the theft of government funds, and other malfeasance. And who knew that people wrote letters like this to the Federal Communications Commission:

My husband and I could not believe the Simpsons were showing two men kissing at 6.30pm. We do not feel this is appropriate for children to see. Lately we have had to change the channel often on our TV due to something inappropriate on. We should not have to do that especially during the day. If something inappropriate is on at 9 or 10pm I can at least say well my kids should be in bed. Or if it’s on cable that is different too. Well we would appreciate it if you could take this into consideration and help make TV safe for all children. Thank you so much.

Many of GovernmentAttic.org’s files show the nuts and bolts of how government works (see, e.g., Department of Education logs of letters it received from congressmen and others). Which prompts the question, why exactly are these government records being kept under lock and key? Few of them contain classified information or data whose release could imperil national security.

The answer, unfortunately, is the government’s toggles largely are flipped to “secret” instead of “public.” President Barack Obama has opened the government’s records a little, and Congress did recently update FOIA to make it a little more difficult for agencies to deny public requests for government information.

But most government information still will never see the light of day. The Federal Records Act (FRA) requires agencies to preserve records, which get shipped to the National Archives and Records Administration and eventually, but not always, become public. A great number of agency documents do not meet the legal definition of “record,” and so may be kept from the public eye or destroyed.

This is the way it has been forever, and it won’t change unless Congress overhauls the laws governing public access to government information, which it has shown little appetite to do lately. Our national legislature, by the way, exempts itself from FOIA and the FRA.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and edits LegBranch.com.