The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) blog noted yesterday that the records of the Wartime Contracting Commisssion, that watchdog on government fraud, waste, and mismanagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, will soon be sealed and put beyond access by the public.
Wartime Contracting Commission's Move to Seal Records for 20 Years: Just Plain Wrong:
The recently dissolved Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC) did just about everything right. Created in the spirit of the Truman Commission, the CWC identified as much as $60 billion in contracting-related waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the process, the CWC held 25 hearings, released 8 reports, and published detailed recommendations intended to prevent waste and fraud from occurring in future overseas contingencies. Perhaps most important, the bipartisan commission was unanimous in its findings and recommendations, notable in a city known for its partisan gridlock.
But the Commission’s decision to seal its internal records for 20 years is just plain wrong. The decision, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, blocks the public and watchdog groups from using the CWC’s source material to build upon the important work of the Commission and to help prevent waste and fraud in overseas contingency contracting in the near term.
Clark Irwin, the CWC’s spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal the seal was justified because “there is sensitive information in there.” He cited proprietary company information, attorney work products, and classified documents as examples of such records. Another source told the Journal that the expectation that the CWC’s records would be sealed was necessary to encourage sources to speak candidly.
But Irwin’s argument ignores the fact that documents are only released by the National Archives after first going through an extensive vetting process. So whether the seal is 20 years, 20 days, or even if there were no seal at all, the truly sensitive material would be redacted or withheld.
Sources close to the CWC have told POGO that the commissioners agreed to the 20-year seal after being informed that it was standard practice. But 20 years doesn’t appear to be anywhere near standard. Congress has created six investigative commissions in the last 20 years, the most well known being the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission).
The 9/11 Commission, which investigated issues of the most sensitive nature, sealed its records for just five years. And even that length of time seemed too long for Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission Chairman, who “said publicly that he was eager for most of the records to be released as quickly as possible.” He later told Reuters that there was “no justification for withholding most of the unreleased material.”
As was the case with the 9/11 Commission, the CWC’s records aren’t available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because the CWC is a congressional entity and Congress isn’t subject to FOIA. But the public should be able to request from agencies records that those agencies provided to the CWC.
A source told the Wall Street Journal that the “vast majority of the commission's records would put you to sleep.” And that may be true. But until the public has the opportunity to view the documents for ourselves, we can’t be certain of their actual value or use them to make wartime contractors more accountable. We hope Congress takes action to right this wrong by legislating a far shorter seal—or better yet, no seal at all.
There is no good reason to seal the records, and plenty of reasons why the public interest would benefit from making them accessible, especially as the USG ramps up to do even more contracting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress can reverse this decision. Please write to your representatives.