Silence and Fog

by Scott McLemee on January 22, 2007

A colleague has just forwarded to me a report from Secrecy News about the latest policy of the Congressional Research Service towards the media:

The Director of the Congressional Research Service last week issued a revised agency policy on “Interacting with the Media” that warns CRS analysts about the “very real risks” associated with news media contacts and imposes new restrictions on speaking to the press.

Among other things, they must file “detailed notes on the matters discussed or to be discussed.” The new rules of engagement are spelled out here.

The Secrecy News report continues:

The CRS has gained increasing prominence in the news media in recent years. The number of citations to CRS in the Nexis news database rose from 2,076 in 2004 to 3,101 in 2005 to 4,179 in 2006.

This growing public attention is a source of anxiety for CRS management, which fears that the agency may come to be perceived as having an institutional agenda of its own or that its impartiality will be questioned by members of Congress….

But the relative impartiality of the CRS and its analysts’ quasi-official standing make it an attractive resource for
reporters covering all kinds of domestic and foreign policy matters.

The new restrictions on CRS contacts with the press will therefore be a blow first of all to reporters and others who rely on CRS
expertise.

Over time, however, the new policy may also backfire against CRS itself. If analysts cannot publish or freely comment on subjects
of their expertise, some will conclude that CRS is not a hospitable venue for their professional development and they will
go elsewhere.

Well, sure, I guess that’s possible. But the reality is that the people making decisions at CRS can afford to take that (extremely long) chance. The position of CRS analyst is certainly among the more desirable jobs in wonkdom. A huge brain drain from CRS —or any at all—is not likely.

Besides, people in the media will end up using CRS material in any case, whether analysts give interviews to the press or not. The analysts’ reports are used by Congressional staff at all levels. That sort of document has a way of getting into the hands of reporters.

What’s really going on here—chances are—is the latest phase of a particular dispute that started coming into public view about a year ago.

Oddly enough, I’m not absolutely unsympathetic to the difficult situation faced by the top-dog bureaucrats in this case. Their role is to make sure that adequate and uninterrupted funding continues for the building and maintenance of their iron cage.

Unfortunately, they are dealing with a really disruptive individual—one with a demonstrated competence and recognized expertise on the topic of separation of powers. He seems to think that it is possible to discuss violations of the separation of powers as if those violations existed in objective reality. In fact, he’s being pretty stubborn about this.

Clearly the man is stuck in the past. Competence doesn’t count, only the money it takes to pay for it. “Impartial” means “totally unobjectionable.” Public life is enriched by keeping informed people away from the press. And victory is at hand.

{ 5 comments }

1

Allegro 01.22.07 at 3:50 pm

2

lucius nathan 01.22.07 at 9:29 pm

The position of CRS analyst is certainly among the more desirable jobs in wonkdom. A huge brain drain from CRS — or any at all — is not likely.

The early evidence indicates that Secrecy News is correct. An initial departure of expert talent from CRS can already be detected, beginning with the specialist on separation of powers mentioned above. He is no longer at CRS. He left to join the Law Library of Congress.

3

Tom T. 01.22.07 at 10:42 pm

Maybe I’m missing the point here, but I’m a functionary in a large executive-branch agency, and if I ever talked to the press without authorization, I would be flayed. Are there agencies for which this is not true?

4

Ginger Yellow 01.23.07 at 7:22 am

So let me get this right. Because being cited in the media would somehow lead the CRS to be considered partial, the media and hence the public must lose access to one of the few impartial sources of information in government. That sounds just great for democracy.

5

Scott McLemee 01.23.07 at 11:46 am

In response to Tom T, the short answer here is yes, because until recently CRS was one such agency.

As of 2002, the official statement on the matter was that “establishing or developing relationships with the press is neither encouraged or discouraged; nor is it prohibited as a matter of general CRS policy.”

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