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First POST: Root Causes

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, October 10 2013

Root Causes

  • Leonard Downie and Sara Rafsky's big report for the Committee to Protect Journalists on "The Obama Administration and the Press" is just out this morning, and it's a doozy. Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, "Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need….with some exceptions, such as putting the White House visitors’ logs on the whitehouse.gov website and selected declassified documents on the new U.S. Intelligence Community website, it discloses too little of the information most needed by the press and public to hold the administration accountable for its policies and actions."

  • Downie adds: "The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent."

  • While the Obama Administration has embraced the web far more than its predecessors, Downie writes, "The government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press."

  • ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton tells Downie: "“In the past, we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”

  • WikiLeaks has caused the Obama Administration to take matters to a whole new level, forming an "Insider Threat Task Force" to more rigorously police the behavior of government employees with access to classified information. McLatchy newspapers reported last June that some agencies were now pursing "unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material…millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for ‘high-risk persons or behaviors’ among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to media are equated with espionage.”

  • Related: Mousse Magazine has a rare and revealing interview with documentarian Laura Poitras, now best known for her work on the Edward Snowden story. The interview covers Poitras' past documentaries, which looked at the impact of 9-11 through the lives of some of the victims of America's responses to that terrorist attack, and works its way around to the Snowden revelations and Poitras' current project, which is to bring the story back home:
    …these are scary times. You’ve got AP journalists who are being wiretapped, Jim Risen of The New York Times who is being compelled to testify against a source. He might end up in jail for protecting a source. Think about what that means for press freedom. But the fact that the government is even bringing these cases is terrifying. It’s not a sign of democracy. It’s a sign of an authoritarian surveillance state. These are indicators of the direction in which the country is going, and they are not good.

In other news around the web:

  • The "root cause" of HealthCare.gov's underwhelming launch is "the government's habit of buying outdated, costly and buggy technology," reports the Washington Post. Well, no shit Sherlock! Our Nick Judd and Bailey McCann reported out the depressing picture back in March here at techPresident.

  • The Washington Post story does a good job of explaining what's wrong with government IT procurement. Quoted in it, veteran Democratic technologist Clay Johnson, who explains why the Obama campaign techies have had nothing to do with HealthCare.gov: "The wizards from the campaign have no desire to contract with the federal government because it's a pain in the butt." And Tom Lee, director of the Sunlight Labs, adds, "The procurement process tends to select for firms that are good at navigating the procurement process, not providing good IT services for the dollar."

  • Indeed, as Judd and McCann reported for us last March, CGI Federal, the prime contractor on HealthCare.gov, "wins contracts by planning ahead."
    It is a prime contractor on the Enterprise System Development (ESD) contract, a multiple award, Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ), performance-based contract for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Through this contract, Rector explains, CMS can break mammoth projects down and buy services as they need them.

    On the other side of the transaction, CGI Federal has essentially pre-checked every box an agency like CMS is going to line up for a project like the health insurance exchange. Meanwhile, they also have a track record CMS can evaluate. The company has 13 vehicles like its participation in the ESD contract set up for agencies including the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense, to the General Services Administration. So far, it's been working out well — in 2012 the company announced a federal award or task order on an average of about 1 per month, sometimes more.

  • OK, that was probably more than you wanted to know about government procurement dysfunction. Back to the more familiar kind, around the government shutdown. Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted, "If John Boehner changed his 1st name from "Speaker" to "Mullah", Pres O wld b eager 2negotiate w him." The tweet was posted at 9:53pm last night, proving a long-standing techPresident theory that the best (and stupidest) stuff appears on Twitter after hours, and one might surmise, some bubbly. The responses to Fleischer are uniformly damning.

  • Over on GitHub, someone posted a bug report about the shutdown, treating it as a system design error. The responses are hilarious. And highly suggestive that a lot of software engineers would love to Reboot America.

  • Azerbaijan, not known for holding free or fair elections, released presidential election results online a day before voting had started. President Ilham Aliyev was shown as "winning" with 72.76% of the vote.

  • Andy Kroll's in-depth profile of NationBuilder CEO Jim Gilliam, which we previewed here in First POST last week, is now up on the American Prospect's website.

  • Steven Poole explains why Malcolm Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath, is a "conceptual shambles."