There’s an important but little-noticed subtext in the revelations about alleged FBI misconduct in the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email practices and Donald Trump’s Russia associations.
It’s the light they shine on what has come to be routine obstruction of public records laws by federal officials.
The records that federal agencies generate while in our employ aren’t owned by faceless bureaucrats or political officials who can choose to withhold or disclose at their discretion and convenience. The records are owned by us: the public.
That includes text messages.
In the past two decades as communications via email, smart phones and social media have grown routine, there’s evidence that federal officials have consciously devised ways to thwart public records laws and keep their communications — our records — secret. Federal officials have used private email accounts, private servers and aliases (not their own name) for public business. They have deleted or lost messages that are supposed to be saved.
And they have learned to use text messaging.
In a new exchange released by the Senate Homeland Security committee today, FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok seem to discuss this very issue in private texts.
Page: Have a meeting with turgal about getting iphone in a day or so
Strzok: Oh hot damn. . . We get around our security/monitoring issues?
Page: No, he’s proposing that we just stop following them. Apparently the requirement to capture texts came from [Office of Management and Budget], but we’re the only org (I’m told) who is following that rule. His point is, if no one else is doing it why should we. . . I’m told – thought I have seen – that there is an IG report that says everyone is failing. But one has changed anything, so why not just join in the failure.
It’s a shockingly cavalier attitude from an attorney and high level FBI official.
There are more text messages between Strzok and Page from a critical time period, as we now know, that the FBI claimed had been lost in a technical glitch. After that became public, the Inspector General said he was able to recover them. (Interesting that the FBI couldn’t.)
Where are all those text messages now? Instead of providing them directly to Congress, the Inspector General is giving the recovered text messages to the Department of Justice which then can give them to Congress (after any bad actors theoretically implicated in the texts have time to mount a fulsome defense).
This is just one artery of a huge problem that also includes federal agencies routinely violating Freedom of Information Act law. They’ve twisted the law on its head, using it to obstruct and delay the release of obviously public information. They filter legitimate public records through political reviews before releasing them in a process that isn’t, in my view, allowed under Freedom of Information law.
Documents released years after they should have been, when the news related to them had died down, reveal that during the Department of Justice’s Fast and Furious scandal—where federal agents were instructed to allow thousands of weapons to be trafficked to Mexican drug cartels—public records officials were told to forward any Freedom of Information Act requests that I made to a special tasker under the guise of “coordination.”
“Recently requests have been made to multiple components for certain records pertaining to Project Gunrunner, an ATF initiative,” a Department of Justice information official wrote to various agencies and officials on May 20, 2011, including DEA, the Attorney General’s office, the Marshal’s Service, the FBI and the Inspector General. “You should contact me directly before proceeding, and as soon as possible…Similarly, you should contact me if you receive a request from Sharyl Attkisson.”
Indeed, this process ensured that I did not receive lawful responses to Freedom of Information requests on Fast and Furious.
This sort of toying with public records is, in my view, one of the worst modern violations of the public trust by our government. The newly-released text messages further that view, but there appears to be no serious effort to remedy it.