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Wikileaks posts 6,780 Congressional reports -- fun, but no smoking gun

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February 9, 2009

By Paul Boutin (The Industry Standard) [1]

The anonymous collective behind Wikileaks, a collaborative site with no ties to Wikipedia other than using the same software, have obtained and published 6,780 reports prepared between 1990 and mid-January by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of Congress that does public policy research for U.S. senators and representatives. CRS report topics range from China's nuclear capability to issues on horse slaughtering. Congress funds the CRS with about $100 million annually. Legally, these reports are public domain material. But as a branch of Congress, the CRS is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Ever since the World Wide Web caught on, Capitol Hill insiders from Al Gore to John McCain have argued for putting CRS reports online, so constituents can see what information their representatives are using to make policy decisions. But many Congresspeople don't want their reports publicized. "Every time a member [of Congress] requests a particular document, the public may infer that he's staking out a particular policy position," a spokesman for former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens once told the Washington Post.

Senator Stevens may think the Internet is a series of tubes, but he's factually correct that CRS reports shouldn't be presumed to represent any one member of Congress's position on a topic. These are reports prepared for Congresspeople, not by them. Wikileaks' copies of the documents don't say who requested each report. Nor can we know for sure which members of Congress read each report. If they did, we don't whether or not they believed it to be the authoritative truth. And it would be wrong to presume that a CRS report is the only input a lawmaker received on an important issue.

For example, a pre-9/11 report on biological weapons stated up front that the "growing concern" over bio-warfare scenarios had been fueled by "novels and movies which attract public interest and a strong press interest," and that many experts considered these worries "out proportion to the actual threat." Yet Congress allowed President Bush to order a military invasion of Iraq based in large part on the threat of biological weapons that have never been found.

Social media pundit David Weinberger has identifed the greatest value of publicizing CRS reports: "Had [the reports] been made public at the time [of presentation to Congress], not only would we citizens have been educated, we could have enhanced, disputed, and corrected oversights and biases."

More recently, the January 2009 report on the FCC's defunct Fairness Doctrine explains the difference between that doctrine and the FCC's equal-time rule for political candidates. It lists the arguments for and against federal regulations requiring broadcasters to cover "issues of public importance," and spells out the roadblocks to any attempt to reinstate a the doctrine. But it also notes that the FCC's internal findings on the topic have never been reviewed by a court, so it's uncertain whether or not new regulations would survive a court challenge.

Little of this is probably new to activists pushing for a revised Fairness Doctrine. What matters is that they can now see the report prepared for the Congresspeople they need to lobby.

These 6,780 documents are a great start. Now, can we get this month's reports?

First appeared in The Standard. Thanks to Paul Boutin and The Standard for covering this issue. Copyright remains with The Standard.

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