Editorial June 20, 2013




This week’s historical anecdote (In the column to the right) and the recent disclosures of the NSA data mining programs through an NSA contract employee leak combine to raise the question of what information should be made available to the general public, and when. But the real issue behind the disclosure issue is trust in government and the sense that it is being parental when, in fact, the government is the child of the voting populous; an unsettling contradiction for some that leads naturally to suspicion and, ultimately, conspiracy theories.

As the historical piece points out, it was in the 1950’s and 60’s when John Moss concluded that the deluge of public requests for information was enormous, equal to the enormous amount of information the government gathers in the course of doing the Nation’s business. In Moss’s view it was a matter of organizing that information and making it available to the public. To this day government takes in and creates tremendous amounts of information. While that information is useful to some segments of the population, the sense that it is theirs and government is not offering it out easily is suspicious to some Americans.

Government officials get into deception as witnessed in Watergate when White House overreach inflamed the public, the fire stoked by the leak of the government classified Rand report revealing that the US involvement in Vietnam was less a strategic involvement than a chasm several administrations could not find their way out of and so continued and even expanded.

911 changed things and brought the PATRIOT Act that defined government authority to gather electronic data for the purpose of protecting the country from terror attacks. During those uncertain times the government did, indeed, attempt to overreach such as with President Bush’s TIPS proposal through which city or county meter readers could report to someone somewhere if they saw something suspicious in your yard. While the TIPS program was a non-starter the PATRIOT Act did become law. Despite it being a lengthy and abstract law for most Americans to understand it did spell out the authorities granted and has helped keep the country safe according to recent statements by federal officials involved with national security.

During those times the Total Information Awareness program was floated allowing government to gather information on Americans and parse that information with other data in the attempt to root out terrorist activities. TIA fell quickly from grace but, reportedly, is the basis of what the NSA is doing now.

An informed public should have as much access to as much data the government holds excluding data that could cause intelligence and military efforts to fail. But there may be another area of access to data on the public that needs to be addressed.

One of the results of Watergate was significant restrictions to access by other branches of government to individual income tax data through the IRS. The change assured that those files would not be accessed for reasons such as identifying weaknesses of political opponents and undermining political strategies.

Concerns settled down until the congressional deliberations on appropriations in 2004. In those days it was popular to combine several appropriation bills into an Omnibus bill resulting in a gigantic, nearly indigestible piece of legislation. One such bill involving defense and other department spending was signed by President Bush. Shortly it was made public that there was a provision in the bill (HR 4818 (Section 222)) that simply authorized chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to look at anyone’s tax returns. No one in the Senate stood up to the inclusion, in fact, it was concluded that ‘someone’ slipped the provision in the bill unbeknownst to, well, anyone. Once public, the Senate passed legislation removing it from the bill.

Suspicion of government based on the belief that there is damning information being gathered surreptitiously is a guess; a guess that is sometimes proven correct, sometimes proven to be necessary business as usual, and sometimes a myth. The NSA leak revealed a program that was already known of but raises the legitimate question, based also on the Watergate and HR 4818 events, of who can access that information and for what reasons. It would be in order for Congress to codify rules of access…and make them public.

Out of the Blue: UFOs and the Freedom of Information Act


Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration The cover of Project Blue Book, Special Report No. 14, (Analysis of Unidentified Flying Objects), Project No. 10073, 5 May 1955, Air Technical Intelligence Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The existence of UFOs may seem like the exclusive domain of science fiction, but as Representative John Moss of California laid the groundwork for legislation that eventually became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, he didn’t discriminate in his pursuit to open as much government information as possible to the public.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as the House held hearings and debated the scope of Moss’s legislation, the Special Government Information Subcommittee and the Foreign Operations and Government Subcommittee (FOGI) of the Committee on Government Operations, both of which were chaired by Moss, addressed a deceptively simple problem. Every year the federal government produced vast amounts of information. But of that mountain of data, the subcommittee needed to know what the government could (or should) release, as well as what federal officials should (or had) to restrict.

The subcommittees fielded thousands of requests from the public, newspapers, and other Members of Congress on every imaginable topic, from Amelia Earhart to ballistic missiles to frozen foods. Of the organizations that contacted the FOGI Subcommittee, two stand out: Flying Saucers International and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Surprising? Yes, but consider this: In the decade before FOIA became law, the United States and the Soviet Union spent an immense amount of money developing programs to send defense technology and eventually people into outer space. By mid-century, whatever existed beyond Earth’s atmosphere actually seemed within reach, and the idea—the very possibility—that “unidentified flying objects” were zooming around the galaxy captured the public imagination. Many people who believed in UFOs were also convinced the Air Force knew about them too, and that the military had kept their existence secret. Anxious Americans considered this a major problem: What if the Russians somehow got access to extraterrestrial technology and used it against the United States? And didn’t defense personnel need confirmation that UFOs existed and the training to distinguish them from planes and missiles so that accidental war with the Soviet Union might be prevented?

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A sample page from Project Blue Book depicting an alleged UFO sighting.

Many of the public requests related to UFOs were about a specific report created by the Air Force titled, “Project Blue Book, Report No. 14 (Analysis of Reports of Unidentified Aerial Objects).” The report, written to determine “if ‘flying saucers’ represented technological developments not known to this country,” mainly provided explanations for why purported unidentified flying objects, were not, in fact, unidentified. The Air Force declassified the report in 1955, but many felt the cover up went deeper. One concerned citizen stated, “The government at Washington has evidence of the arrival of the space travelers to the earth, and it is serving no good purpose to refuse to confirm their arrival. The government’s confirmation would allay man’s fears concerning them and permit them to open their minds and hearts and welcome them, that we may profit by the new ideas they are bringing.”

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A sample page from Project Blue Book depicting an alleged UFO sighting.

UFOs were just one of hundreds of subjects Moss and his subcommittees investigated in all agencies and at all levels. But the Subcommittees never confirmed or denied the existence of UFOs; their purpose was to ensure that the public had the most information available to them.

Source: Records on flying saucers from the Special Subcommittee on Government Information, Committee on Government Operations, 86th Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Congressional Myths

Is it true that Members of Congress do not pay into Social Security and when they retire they receive a pension equal to their congressional salary for the rest of their life?

The answer is no. All members of Congress pay Social Security taxes in the same amounts as they would if they were employed in the private sector at the same salary level. The amount of a congressional pension varies and depends on years of service, age at the time of retirement, and salary.

The facts: The confusion about Social Security probably results from the fact that before 1984, Senators and Representatives did not participate in the Social Security program. Like all federal government employees at that time, members of Congress were covered by a pension plan, called the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), that did not require payment of Social Security taxes and did not provide Social Security benefits. In 1983, Congress passed a law (P.L. 98-21) that required all federal employees first hired after 1983 to participate in Social Security. The law also required all members of Congress to participate in Social Security as of January 1, 1984, regardless of when they first entered Congress. Because the CSRS was not designed to coordinate with Social Security, Congress directed the development of a new retirement plan for federal employees, called the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), which does coordinate a federal pension with Social Security.

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at age 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. They are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary.

Read a report that provides more detail on retirement benefits for members of Congress.

From Senate.gov/Reference Home