Government Data Disappears Across Multiple Agencies
What happened: Some previously public government data from several agencies has been removed from public view in the early weeks of the Trump administration.
Why it matters: Withholding information from the public violates principles of transparency and accountability and facilitates anti-science policy.
APHIS’ animal welfare data disappears
USDA APHIS removed inspection reports and other data in February 2017 related to the welfare of animals housed in zoos, research laboratories, and other facilities. APHIS released a statement that said the information was taken down following a “comprehensive review of the information it posts on its website for the general public to view.” As a result of this review, APHIS stated that they had “implemented actions to remove certain personal information from documents it posts on APHIS’ website involving the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.” When pressed on whether the White House had an influence on APHIS’ decision, USDA spokesperson, Tanya Espinosa, would not comment.
Critics, however, have not fully accepted the privacy of personal information explanation. “Claiming ‘privacy’ is a smokescreen to unjustifiably evade critical transparency about government operations,” said Justin Goodman, vice-president of the non-profit White Coat Waste Project that opposes taxpayer funded animal research. Goodman said that APHIS redacted most of the personal information from the animal welfare reports that were once publicly available. It is also of note that APHIS’s welfare data had been publicly available since 2009 when USDA had a legal settlement with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) agreeing to make some of these records, like annual reports, available electronically. Matthew Bailey, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, said he understood why APHIS would not want animal welfare reports publicly available, given the potential for harassment of researchers using animal models. “I would certainly agree that protection of personal information is of utmost importance, given the rich history of targeting individuals involved in research,” Bailey said.
USDA released a statement on February 17 that the animal welfare information would begin to be published again. “Today, APHIS is posting the first batch of annual reports of research institutions and inspection reports for certain federal research facilities that the agency regulates under the Animal Welfare Act,” read the statement. “The agency will continue to review records and determine which information is appropriate for reposting.” The reports are in the same redacted form as they were when they were previously available online. As of March 6, 2017, it does appear that animal welfare information is being published again.
The EPA retracts methane information requests
On March 2, an EPA news release stated the agency would be withdrawing a request for information on: 1) “an ‘operator survey’ that asked for basic information on the numbers and types of equipment at all onshore oil and gas production facilities in the U.S.” and 2) “a ‘facilitator survey’ asking for more detailed information on sources of methane emissions and emission control devices or practices in use by a representative sampling of facilities in several segments of the oil and gas industry.” The news release notes that Administrator Scott Pruitt asked for the withdrawal “to assess the need for the information that the agency was collecting through these requests.” Some thought that withdrawing this request for data sent a strong signal about the Trump administration’s future action on climate change. Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy programs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “If the EPA is going to run away from collecting even the most basic information about oil and gas operations, what does this say about its dedication to protecting air quality and water quality?” The EPA under the Obama administration made the decision to request methane emissions data from the oil and gas industry after recent studies suggested the agency’s numbers were inaccurate.
The White House’s open data portal is empty
In another case, the White House removed all data from its open portal website in February 2017. This included 31 databases posted in response to President Obama’s Open Data executive order (executive order 13642). Much of the data from the Obama administration is still available via the National Archives and Records Administration archive of the Obama White House website, although some datasets are still missing. The White House did not release a statement in regards to the data being removed from its open portal website and no information had been added as of March 2017. Alex Howard, deputy director for the Sunlight Foundation said that information may just not be available at this time to populate the open data portal site, but noted that there is no legal mandate that such information be provided.
Concerns loom over the transparency of White House visitor information
The disappearance of government data may signal a lack of transparency and accountability under the Trump administration, and there has been particular concern about whether or not President Trump will decide to make visitor logs publicly available. In March, eight democratic U.S. Senators wrote a letter to President Trump calling for the release of visitors’ information for both the White House and Mar-A-Lago (Trump’s estate in West Palm Beach, Florida). The Obama White House and Secret Service released visitor logs 90-120 days after they were created; therefore, Trump administration visitor logs could be released as early as April 20, if a similar policy is followed. The Obama administration was the first administration to publish its visitor logs online.
White House visitor logs are handled by the Secret Service, which is an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “This is a choice an administration makes,” Howard said. “If they choose not to [release visitor logs], then public interest organizations and advocates, including Sunlight [Foundation], will have to make a decision about whether we want to sue the Secret Service.” Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, expressed concern at the possible lack of transparency on lobbyists visiting the White House, “If people go to the White House and know that their names are not going to be disclosed, it may indeed affect who goes to the White House and who tries to influence the president or the president’s staff.” The White House website for visitor access records has no posted visitor logs as of March, 2017, but states, “This page is being updated. It will post records of White House visitors on an ongoing basis, once they become available.” Trump’s estate, Mar-A-Lago, is not mentioned on the White House’s visitor access records website.