Meet Rep. Darrell Issa. He promises to scrutinize and investigate every possible picayune aspect of the Obama administration, but this might be taking things a little too far. He's now requesting information about everyone who requested FOIA
January 31, 2011

darrell issa.jpg

Meet Rep. Darrell Issa. He promises to scrutinize and investigate every possible picayune aspect of the Obama administration, but this might be taking things a little too far. He's now requesting information about everyone who requested FOIA information over the last four years. (behind NYT paywall)

Representative Darrell Issa calls it a way to promote transparency: a request for the names of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, business executives, journalists and others who have requested copies of federal government documents in recent years.

Mr. Issa, a California Republican and the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says he wants to make sure agencies respond in a timely fashion to Freedom of Information Act requests and do not delay them out of political considerations.

But his extraordinary request worries some civil libertarians. It “just seems sort of creepy that one person in the government could track who is looking into what and what kinds of questions they are asking,” said David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. “It is an easy way to target people who he might think are up to no good.”

Mr. Issa sent a letter on Tuesday asking 180 federal agencies, from the Department of Defense to the Social Security Administration, for electronic files containing the names of people who requested the documents, the date of their requests and a description of information they sought. For those still pending after more than 45 days, he also asked for any communication between the requestor and the federal agency. The request covers the final three years of Bush administration and the first two years of President Obama’s.

“Our interest is not in the private citizens who make the requests,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Mr. Issa. “We are looking at government responses to these Freedom of Information requests and the only way to measure that is to tally all that information.”

Can you say massive government overreach? I knew that you could.

The very short Times article doesn’t get into the extent to which Issa and his allies are indebted to corporations that have a strong interest in finding out about inquiries that could affect their interests. Like reporters nosing around into the military-industrial complex, or trying to find out about stalled prosecutions of egregious polluters.

If, indeed, Issa is just super concerned about openness in government, that’s fine. But it’s not clear that a member of Congress— and a highly politicized, partisan one at that—ought to be the one to receive such sensitive information.

Can Issa be trusted? Well, consider this New York Magazine summary of a New Yorker dig into Issa:

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has taken a long look into the often shady past of California congressman Darrell Issa, the House Oversight Committee chairman who intends to unleash a flurry of investigations on the Obama administration. Issa has, “among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.” “Everyone has a past,” Issa tells Lizza. This is true. But not everyone has fired an employee by “plac[ing] a box on the table, and open[ing] it to reveal a gun.”

Such personal behavior is bad enough, but often, as with Issa, it parallels shocking professional behavior. For example, on taking his committee chairmanship, Issa sent a letter out to big corporations inviting them to tell him which government regulations they do not like.

I think it's safe to say that there is nothing in either Issa's personal history or stated agenda that would make him in the slightest trustworthy with such a massive amount of information about Americans, especially in such a way that could be formed into a database for other purposes with no accountability at all, something that Republicans were up in arms about not that long ago.

I am constantly reminded of the Chinese blessing that is really a curse: May you live in interesting times. And we certainly are.

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