Impending changes in Labor Department procedures for giving the media advance access to jobs data have drawn resistance from news outlets and House Republicans.
The dispute, pitting information security needs against press freedoms and the principle of governmental impartiality, surfaced at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday.
With job creation a central election year issue, committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., focused on two distinct themes: whether Labor mishandled this spring’s introduction of new information security procedures for release of jobs data and whether the Obama administration is exaggerating for political gain the number of “green jobs” it has helped create.
The Labor Department “has jeopardized the integrity of employment data -- in some cases for clearly political reasons,” Issa said. “Now, without clear provocation, the DOL is unilaterally changing the method by which the media accessed Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job data.... The abrupt nature of this change coupled with the absence of a clear explanation and a lack of public input raises key questions about who made the decision to implement this change and why.”
Issa charged the administration with using the guise of environmental funds to justify counting as green such jobs as septic-tank and portable-toilet cleaners, bus driver, “a college professor, policy expert at any think tank, even a lobbyist.” He challenged the claim that 3.1 million green jobs were created in 2010, in part through $500 million in Recovery Act funds.
In April, the Labor Department sent out letters saying it was imposing new controls on the hardware and software used in the lockup, a special secure room where reporters for major financial wire services -- chiefly the Associated Press, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, and Reuters -- are permitted to spend a half-hour with newly compiled employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics before a news embargo is lifted. About eight or 10 lockup sessions per month have been the norm since the 1980s. They are designed to give reporters a chance to digest the raw numbers and supply accompanying analysis and context when they are published.
According to Carl Fillichio, senior adviser for communications and public affairs at Labor, changing technology and the advent of global instant financial trading prompted the department to conduct its first review of security procedures in more than a decade. “Algorithmic trading introduces new security variables into a lockup system not originally designed to guard against market-moving disruptions that could be caused by the release of government data to certain traders just seconds before the rest of the general public,” he told lawmakers at the hearing. “A few years ago, a few seconds here or there would not have had much of an impact. Today, fractions of a second can equate to millions or even billions of dollars in market movements.”
In April 2011, the department contracted with Sandia National Laboratories to study system vulnerabilities in the BLS lockups. In an August 2011 report, which has not been released to Congress or the public, lab officials recommended a series of changes. Among them, journalists would no longer be permitted to use their own computers, software, or cables -- only pens and notebooks. They would rely strictly on a government transmission over the Internet for the data and would no longer be permitted to exit the lockup room before the news embargo lifts.
Media groups have until mid-June to remove their equipment from the lockup room and the first run under the new procedures is scheduled for July 6, when the next national jobless numbers are scheduled to be released.
Members of the media -- in the unusual role of appearing at hearings as witnesses -- panned the new arrangements.
Daniel Moss, executive director of Bloomberg News, said the department’s presentation of the new system was unprecedented in that it was done without honoring the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act and presented as nonnegotiable. He said using only government Internet feeds “creates a single point of failure” -- many news organizations have backup systems in case of malfunction. Moss also complained that “the government would literally own reporters’ notebooks, making them write on government computers, giving the government unfettered access.” This is a First Amendment violation and a risk to national security in the form of cyberattacks, he said. He also criticized the Labor Department for failing to explain the system openly.
Rob Doherty, general manager of U.S. operations for Reuters News, also decried the lack of advance notice. He said his company is “fundamentally opposed to the use of government equipment because it would imperil our ability to provide information. The current system allows us to incorporate historical data and press releases, and this would be lost.” Doherty said security breaches by the media are rare. Two accidental premature releases of data were reported in 2008.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the panel, said the impetus for the hearing was complaints from profit-seeking Wall Street companies, and that Issa should focus on creating jobs rather than challenging the Labor Department’s methodologies.
Issa said Labor had violated directives from the Office of Management and Budget by allowing an unconfirmed political appointee such as Fillichio to make policy that could result in the news media being used as “arm of propaganda.”
On the green jobs issue, which was a legislative priority of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis when she was in Congress, Democrats asked BLS officials whether Solis or other leaders had interfered with the counting of jobs. Keith Hall, a former Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner who is now a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, explained that BLS is an independent agency that collects, disseminates and explains data. It does not delve into policy debates over what constitutes green jobs, he said. But “technology has changed so much that it is difficult to maintain adequate security in the lockup room. BLS should get full oversight authority for the confidentiality procedures.”