Thursday, July 19, 2012

Governments Rewriting History

Every so often I like to point to stories showing the importance, especially for government documents, of having multiple copies under independent, preferably somewhat antagonistic, administration as happened with the Federal Depository Library Program for paper, and as happens in the USDocs Private LOCKSS Network for digital documents. The reason is that governments are especially incapable of resisting the temptation, common to everyone, to edit history to make it less embarrassing. The great George Orwell understood this; Winston Smith's job in 1984 was rewriting history to make it conform to current ideology.

My latest example comes via Yves Smith's excellent blog, naked capitalism. She points to an article at Alternet by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgenson and Jie Chen which describes how records of some major contributions to the 2007-8 election cycle have mysteriously vanished from the  Federal Election Commission's database of political contributions.
In 2008, however, a substantial number of contributions to such 501(c)s made it into the FEC database. For the agency quietly to remove them almost four years later with no public comment is scandalous. It flouts the agency’s legal mandate to track political money and mocks the whole spirit of what the FEC was set up to do. No less seriously, as legal challenges and public criticism of similar contributions in the 2012 election cycle rise to fever pitch, the FEC’s action wipes out one of the few sources of real evidence about how dark money works. Obviously, the unheralded purge also raises unsettling questions about what else might be going on with the database that scholars and journalists of every persuasion have always relied upon.
They write:
While you knew FEC data was unlikely to be the last word, you could be confident that whatever the agency did report was as true as it could make it. That the FEC would ever delete true reports of politically relevant money was literally unthinkable.
Other sources had made copies of the FEC data and added value:
Comprehending their formatting and correctly interpreting their myriad rows and columns required the patience of Job and the informal equivalent of a BS in computer science. As a consequence, most researchers threw up their hands. They didn’t directly use FEC data; instead they relied upon data reworked by some for-profit reseller, or more commonly, the Center for Responsive Politics.
The journalists were re-examining the FEC's database:
For the 2007-'08 election cycle, for example, we found millions of dollars in political contributions that appear to have escaped earlier nets. We are also able to do a much better job of aggregating contributions by large donors, which is key to understanding how the system really works.
What they found was:
We discovered the FEC deletions when cross-checking our results for big-ticket contributors. These deletions do not at all resemble other post-election corrections that the FEC routinely makes to its data downloads.
 They then give a series of examples of large donors whose contributions to the 2007-8 cycle have been whitewashed away.

The interesting and different thing about this public "naming and shaming" is that it had an effect. The very next day, the Alternet reporters found that at least some of the missing data had mysteriously re-appeared:
In mid-morning, certain reporters began tweeting that it was easy to find contributions that we specifically discussed on the FEC website. We checked one particularly famous name that we had also looked up only a few days before and found that he was indeed back.
The Tweeters who doubted the Alternet story were easily refuted because:
These downloads are public and dated, so anyone can verify what’s in them. The 2008 contribution by Harold Simmons that we mentioned is in the January download. It is not in the July 8 download. The same is true for other contributions we discussed to Let Freedom Ring by John Templesman, Jr., and Foster Friess. More broadly, the entire set of “C9” files covering 501(c)4 that we discussed is gone from the July download, with the trivial exception we mentioned. Needless to say, we checked the FEC’s database many times ourselves and we indicated that the original record of contributions by Simmons (and others) could still be found, if you knew exactly where to look.
The whole story, which was made possible by archiving copies of what the government was publishing when it was being published, seems to be having a happy ending. Except, perhaps, for the FEC. The credibility of the information they publish has been degraded, and will stay degraded until they come up with an explanation of what exactly happened and how they plan to make sure it never happens again. The FEC should look to Amazon for an example of how to make this kind of information public.

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