Bureaucracy Busters

How to Muckrake in Cyberspace, Part III: Federal Agencies

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Digging up the dirt on federal agencies can be a tough task, full of dead ends, stone walls, and cold shoulders. But when you don’t have a mole on the inside, the Web can be useful for getting at some of the government’s dirty little secrets — without the need to rendezvous in dark alleys.

It’s the workers in the trenches who have first-hand knowledge of those agency policies and practices which never show up on the front page — knowledge you’re not going to get from the PR department. From ex-naval officers to disgruntled forest rangers, here are some insiders we’re especially fond of:

Center for Defense Information

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Center for Defense Information

Arms Trade Database

Nuclear Weapons Database

Current Nuclear Holdings


A quick scan of the Center for Defense Information staff roster shows at least seven retired military officers, including the ex-admiral who founded CDI. Their expertise gives credibility to CDI’s relentless surveillance of the conventional arms trade. Both the Arms Trade Database and the Nuclear Weapons Database are indispensable bookmarks for the DOD muckraker-to-be; the latter includes the world’s current nuclear holdings cross-listed by type and country. Signing up for the CDI listservs provides a daily feed of press clips about recent developments in arm sales and policy.

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

White Papers

1997 National Wildlife Refuge Survey Results

The conscientious Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) crack the whip at the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Their White Papers are summary reports on government malfeasance ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers’ ongoing failure to protect the Florida Keys to the BLM’s continued toleration of the slaughter of wild horses, and their 1997 National Wildlife Refuge Survey reveals the startling condition of U.S. wildlife management.

While FECInfo focuses on campaign spending (an essential database searchable by contributor or political recipient), its founder, former FEC employee Tony Raymond, also delves into the agency’s shortcomings, including an analysis of why its new electronic filing system is destined for failure.

The Web site for the National Security Archive at George Washington University puts up a Document National Security Archiveof the Month featuring humdingers such as Possible Intentions of Mexican Drug Organizations and the Farsi Survival Guide from the 1980 Iran Hostage Rescue Mission. NSA’s extensive collection of declassified documents — one of the largest in the U.S. — isn’t available online yet, but a searchable inventory is. In the meantime, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Database, CIA and Assassinations, and White House E-Mail features are well-researched examples of piecing together FOIA’ed documents to track agency activity — and the Elvis-Nixon files are weirder than anything Mulder and Scully ever found.

The Right-To-Know Network (RTK Net), co-sponsored by EPA, HUD, private foundations, and the budget hounds at OMB Watch, provides free access to dozens of government databases and additional documents on environmental, housing, and sustainable development issues, including fully searchable databases of EPA civil lawsuits and enforcement actions, and Superfund’s effects on public housing projects. Archived newsletters from RTK Net and other environmental and housing groups are an extra bonus.

The Federation of American Scientists serves up government accountability on a no-nonsense platter on its mammoth Web site. The Arms Sales Monitoring Project tracks how the U.S. has exported more than $96 billion of weaponry since 1990, and profiles America’s leading customers. The Project on Government Secrecy promotes public oversight and turns the heat up on the CIA and the Security Policy Board with declassified documents: Read recent SPB memos and minutes and take a look at the CIA’s attempts to keep its budget secret. The Intelligence Resource Program delivers hot documents from the CIA, NSA, and DOD — including an unofficial inspection report from the NSA — and maps out spending trends in the intelligence community. In a parodic twist, IRP analyst John Pike compares unhelpful official Web sites with his own “model” versions — including a model NSA site with maps, budgets, reports, and personnel information on the ultra-secret spy agency.

The brainchild of a former New York Times investigative journalist and a Syracuse University statistics professor, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) charts federal enforcement activities with searchable databases on the IRS, DEA, ATF, and, recently added, the FBI — these are especially useful for getting a sense of overall patterns and inconsistencies. TRAC also reports DEA trends over time, including federal drug control spending and criminal enforcement. Similar information on the Department of Justice, the U.S. Marshall Service, the INS, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Customs Service can be requested directly from the non-profit organization for a fee.

As co-director Susan Long explained, the thorough fact-checking all TRAC data receives makes it so useful that some agencies head to TRAC before sifting through their own dusty and disorganized files. TRAC materials recently helped the New York Times and Associated Press to break stories on IRS and ATF enforcement.

The Project on Government Oversight‘s 1996 Military-Industrial Complex Initiative exposes abuses within the defense budget, listing General Accounting Office reports for the last two years, plus numerous analyses and factsheets.

A Little Something FOIA
Get your hands dirty and ruffle some feathers.

Despite all these resources for snooping, there will be times when you’ll want to take the leap and request documents directly from an agency under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Here are some online aids to get you through the process intact:

The FOIA veterans at the National Security Archive have put up a full-text copy of the act and a user guide on filing FOIA requests, along with essential addresses, frequently asked questions, and sample FOIA requests.

Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen offers a FOIA guidebook and advice on appealing denied FOIA requests.

And the American Civil Liberties Union shows you step-by-step how to file FOIA requests with little or no cost.

Prying Press

For a welcome break from document hunting, peruse these publications which continually uncover prime dirt on Uncle Sam:

Earth Island Journal‘s Web site archives its groundbreaking stories, from military lies to the EPA’s problem with pesticides.

Multinational Monitor’s archive includes its January 1996 story on Military Toxics Project‘s study of the depleted uranium ammunition developed by the DOE and used in the Persian Gulf War.

Project Censored’s Web site documents the major stories that never made it to the mainstream megamedia, and provides helpful resources and advice for journalists.

This list is far from complete: You can help fill in the blanks by tipping off the MoJo Wire to any agency shenanigans or muckraking spots on the Web that you discover.


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